Moving Out of the Backstage: How Can We Decolonize Research?

This blogpost is written by seventeen researchers based in (or in between) various settings, in particular the DR Congo, Sierra Leone, India, Sweden, Rwanda and the UK. Since all co-authors do not have a personal or institutional web-sites they are simply listed by name, in alphabetical order: Oscar Adedi Dunia; Stanislas Bisimwa , Elisée Cirhuza, Maria Eriksson Baaz, John Ferekani, Pascal Imili, Evariste Kambale, Jérémie Mapatano; Lebon Mulimbi; Bienvenu Mukungilwa; Lievin Mukingi; David Mwambari; Swati Parashar; Darwin Rukanyaga Assumani; Wolf Sinzaher, Mats Utas and James Vincent.


 

Research here in the DRC is like the coltan and other minerals. Other countries that don’t have access to it claim it and benefit from it. It is the same with research. The research would not be possible without us. Still it is people from the outside who profit from it, get visibility, funding and are called experts. At the same time we – the ones who provide access, adapt the methodology and questions and collect the data in very precarious circumstances – get little compensation and are not acknowledged. It is sort of a continuation of colonial relations.

This was one of the conclusions summarising a workshop organised to exchange experiences among “brokering researchers”, in the DR Congo. This workshop forms part of a larger research project involving also Sierra Leone and India.[i] By the concept brokering researchers, we here refer to researchers based in the research setting who regulate the access and flow of knowledge. They are often, in the literature, pejoratively referred to as “local research assistants” or even “fixers”. While accounts of research exploitation have increased in recent years, in large enabled by social media, they go long back in history[ii] and have been articulated in a range of contexts[iii][iv] in and outside of Africa, most recently in Syria[v]. Yet, while research exploitation seems particularly marked in research conducted in settings marked by armed conflict (which is the focus here) it is certainly not unique to such contexts.[vi]Hence, we encourage also researchers outside conflict research to continue reading and weigh in.

To summarise a long and uncomfortable story: there is (most often) a marked inequality between brokering researchers and “contracting researchers” (i.e. researchers often based in the global North, who contract brokering researchers,). The latter are ones who profit the most, not the least from the research in zones of armed conflict. Publishing on issues based on exciting field data in such zones provides a venue for recognition, citations and further research funding necessary for career advancement. The trouble is that the more brokering researchers are silenced, erased and made invisible in the research texts, the more the contracting researcher appears to benefit from this extractive and exploitative relationship. Not only can he/she write him/herself as the daring and heroic inquirer revealing truths in dangerous places, he/she (by not including the indispensable people as co-writers),  can also profit from single (or with other contracting researchers) authored publications. More recently, the silencing of brokering researchers and the promotion of the “contracting researcher Self” has taken the form of indulging in psychological discomforts and so called traumas related to fieldwork. This increasing preoccupation with the psychological and physical well-being of the contracting researcher often appears as quite unintentionally oblivious to privilege and positionality, disregarding the situation of brokering researchers and others in the field.

Not seldom and gradually more so, given the increasing securitization of research[vii], such research is often conducted while the contracting researcher remains in the comfort of his/her country, or stays in a comfortable hotel in a safe urban setting in the conflict zone. Hence, it is frequently the brokering researchers based in the research setting who are most at risk, at times (in cases when the contracting researchers follow to the field) arising from contracting researchers’ risky and suspicious behavior. Moreover, brokering researchers regularly do most of the hard work; provide access to the respondents; translate and adapt the methodology (interview guides/survey questions) to the context; collect the data in insecure settings, summarise the data and provide crucial inputs into interpretation, ensure the safety of the researcher, and much more. Yet, brokering researchers most often do so with poor remuneration, no insurance and no/limited funds to cover unexpected costs crucial to their safety in the field. In addition to this and despite all the work, brokering researchers rarely make it further than the acknowledgement section (sometimes not even that); with slim chances of appearing as co-authors. As Mukungilwa concludes brokering researchers are “like ghosts in the research machine: they are there, but nobody sees them.” A similar situation has been reported also in other contexts, not the least in journalism. It seems academia is not much – if at all – any better.

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A Response

The last contribution to our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018), in which the author responds to commentaries from Lisa Tilley, Lisa Ann Richey, and Toussaint Nothias.


I am (racialised as) white. My dad is (racialised as) brown. We’re both, unavoidably, even if unevenly and occasionally conditionally, White, participants in and enablers of the supremacy of logics, structures, and ways of doing things and modes of being that privilege, if not always people that look like my dad, then certainly people who look like me (as long as we go on presenting in ways coherent to White supremacy). Imaging Africa comes from occupying this liminal set of spaces, spaces that, however uncomfortable they make me, remain a privilege relative to those who do not have the luxury on reflecting on exactly how white, or not, they really are.

Writing Imagining Africa was a complete departure for me. Previously I’d been writing about civil society in Southern Africa and the politics of international development targets. So far so ok. But it wasn’t enough; I struggled to find my ethos in that work, and I felt like a gatekeeper. And so I started to think a lot about myself. Being born Jewish also added layers to the experience of being white and it became something I wanted to write about in more depth. Writing Imagining Africa thus became a bridge from the work I was doing previously (in and on bits of continental Africa) and what I wanted to be writing about then/now i.e. race, (re)racialisation, and specifically whiteness/Whiteness.

All of this made writing Imagining Africa incredibly difficult. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, while incorporating Whiteness centrally into how we configure our readings of the international in the way I tried to do is vital, there are also a series of lacunae that I wished I’d addressed. I spent most if not all of my time researching and writing the book feeling like I was stabbing around in the dark. New literatures would confront me on a regular basis, and new possibilities for research, all the while that my own sense of self and my ethical commitments were being reshaped and tested out the deeper I got into it. And what kind of book would it be anyway? Where would it sit within the disciplines? Would it be REF-able (urgh!)? This does not justify the gaps within the work that Lisa Tilly, Toussaint Nothias and Lisa Ann Richey have identified, but it does perhaps explain them.

That said, I am particularly grateful to all the symposium contributors for how closely and carefully they read the book, during busy periods of marking, holidays, injuries, fieldwork, writing, and everything else that life throws up. They have all thrown up such important questions and issues that I look forward to exploring in further detail now I’m ‘post-book’. And thanks also to Nivi, who I worked with directly on this, as well as all the other DoT editors, for giving me the opportunity of bringing this symposium to the site.  Continue reading

Why was Africa Rising? The Roots and Perils of Afro-idealization

The third and last commentary in our Imagining Africa symposium, to be followed tomorrow by the author’s reply. Today’s post is from Toussaint Nothias, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. Toussaint holds a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds. His research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa. He has done research on foreign correspondents in Kenya and South Africa; on the media production of the Africa Rising narrative; on Kenyan journalists’ reporting of elections, terrorism and international criminal justice; and on the social-media led critique of CNN’s coverage of Kenya. Most recently, he is researching Facebook’s initiatives to increase internet connectivity across Africa, and their impact on local media production and civic engagement. The project engages a range of debates about digital advocacy and activism in the Global South, and about tech corporation’s investments in network infrastructures and civil society. Toussaint’s work notably appears in The International Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Visual Communication and Communication, Culture, Critique. He organized the pre-ICA conference “African Media Studies in the Digital Age” in 2017; edited a blog post series on Digital Africa for Africa is a Country; and he is the recipient of the IAMCR’s 2018 Stuart Hall Award.

All posts in this series are available here.


While travelling in Ghana and Nigeria in 1960, the Pulitzer winner reporter Homer Bigart wrote a letter to his New York Times editor, Emmanuel Freedman:

“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cook. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about” (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).

Freedman responded:

“This is just a note to say hello and tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).”

Such reliance on crude racist stereotypes testifies to the broader place long assigned to Africa in the imaginary and social order shaped by Whiteness – a multilayered, oppressive system of social hierarchization largely born of 19th century racialist thinking. So when the British magazine The Economist published a cover titled Africa Rising in December 2011 – discussed in more detail in the 7th Chapter of Clive Gabay’s fantastic book – it may have appeared, at first sight, like a radical discursive departure. Could it be that after years of critiques from postcolonial scholars and intellectuals, the media took these comments on board and decided to remedy their shortcomings in terms of representations of Africa?  Against this reading, Gabay offers a clear, powerful, and critical argument. This apparent representational change is neither altogether new, nor does it really constitute a change. On the contrary, this trend for Afro-idealization, most notably visible in the metropolitan appetite for Afropolitan fashion shows and festivals, is the result of broader political and economic processes entangled with a set of racial anxieties about Western decline in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis.

Gabay’s much anticipated book provides the most sustained analysis to date of why the early 2010s saw the growth of an “Africa Rising” discourse across a range of fields – from academia and business to politics and cultural productions. One of the book’s main contributions is to provide historical evidence of past Afro-idealizations in Western discourse – from the 1920s debates around ‘native rights’ in Kenya to the 1950s liberal-settler, inter-racial associations and groups in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Through these two case studies, Gabay reminds us that positive accounts of African subjectivities have in fact long been part of the discursive apparatus of colonial power.

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Imagining Africa as the Market for Profiting from Whiteness

A second commentary in our series on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa, this time from Lisa Ann Richey. Lisa is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Currently, she leads the research projects Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things (2016-2021), funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (FSE) and Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (2019-2024), funded by the Danish Development Research Council (FFU). Among other books, she has authored Celebrity Humanitarianism in Congo: Business, Disruption and the Politics of Development with Alexandra Budabin (forthcoming); Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with Stefano Ponte (2011); Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (2008) and edited Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (2016).  She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes, new transnational actors and alliances in the global South, development theories and representations, global health and gender. Lisa was the founding Vice-President of the Global South Caucus of the International Studies Association (ISA). She tweets as @BrandAid_World.

The full collection of posts in this series is available here.


I distinctly remember the first time I learned about Clive Gabay’s research on representations of Africa now published as Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press 2018). I was sitting in the audience of an African politics panel at an international conference, and Clive put up a slide showing the cover from The Economist from 2000 headlining ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (p. 204). He quickly switched to the cover from 2011 with the visual play on ‘The Kite Runner’ and its eternal optimism entitled, ‘Africa Rising’ (p. 205). This visual transition from covering Africa as ‘nothing but a nihilistic swamp of pre-modernity’ to Africa as ‘colourful, joyful and optimistic’ (p. 203) left me troubled. Not just intellectually, irritated by the audacity of The West to continue to frame all things African in stereotypes where the range of options for young men runs from militarized to infantilized, but emotionally, feeling angry at the sensation of guilty pleasure produced by the juxtaposition of the photographs. The images themselves, as Gabay describes, couldn’t have been more different in their depictions of a continent through the bodies of its masculine youth. Yet, the magazine covers had strange similarities beyond their gender, as they were both highly-crafted, beautiful covers.  While the second ‘rising’ cover with its beckoning light and natural aesthetic (where even the dirt is a photogenic hue of red clay) was obviously linked to the editorial line on Africa’s possibilities, it was the first ‘hopeless’ cover that was surprisingly appealing.  Sure the young man is holding a rocket-launcher, but the expression on his face— notably the large and central focal point of this image—appears to be one of delight. There is nothing in this image to suggest that its referent object, a young African man, is hopeless. Quite the contrary, he looks full of agency, just not the kind WE want in our imagined Western civilization built upon Europe’s ‘exceptional institutional genius’ (p.12).  Instead, we prefer the happy kite-flying child, viewed from a safe distance so as not to disrupt our gaze and imaginations with any possibility of a real, feeling subject. The Economist imagery embodied the realization of modernization’s ideal movement from the constraints of savagery to the open-space flow through dreams that were . . . Ours. Divorcing the roots of Western societal wealth from systems of slavery and imperialism, Gabay shows us, ‘it has been possible to generate a belief in the universal utility of this system for the whole world’ and this universalism (not the system itself) is what Gabay calls ‘Whiteness’ (p. 13).

In most simple terms: Eurocentrism+Narcissism+Modernism=Whiteness

So how we feel about the covers of the Economist is raced. And thus, any history of Whiteness must engage deeply with the politics of affect.  Because, it is OUR feelings that count. And we feel White. These White feelings consist, predominantly, of anxiety, and this anxiety has a history. Specifically, Imagining Africa argues that ‘over the past century, we have seen the arrogance of elite phenotypical white supremacy slip, all the while that the centrality of Whiteness to the imagination and mechanics of international order has been maintained’ (p. 236-7).  Gabay’s book provides a remarkably documented, deeply political history of the international relations imaginaries of Africa.  After the publication of Imagining Africa, all scholars of African international politics, colonialism, media studies or humanitarianism should be expected to account for the question of Whiteness in their analysis.

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Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space

The first commentary in our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Lisa Tilley is currently Lecturer in Politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Her work focuses on political economy/ecology, race, and historical/present-day colonialism, extraction and expropriation. She has analysed key sites of colonial/capitalist expansion – the plantation, the mine, and the city – with particular attention to the social and ecological formations, technologies and logics produced through those locations. Most of her research has been conducted in Southeast Asia, specifically across the rural and urban frontiers of Indonesia. See, for example, “A Strange Industrial Order”: Indonesia’s Racialised Plantation Ecologies and Anticolonial Estate Worker Rebellions, forthcoming in History of the Present. She also co-convenes the CPD-BISA working group, is Associate Editor of Global Social Theory, and has visited with us several times before.

The full collection of posts in this symposium is available here.


 

I happen to be reading Clive Gabay’s new book in a homestay owned by German missionaries in West Papua. The European owners themselves are not here but their presence is made vivid in the written instructions printed in cordial, civilised italics on two sheets of A4 and pasted onto my door: “do not bring prostitutes into your room; do not chew betel inside or near the homestay; do not wear Western swimsuits at the beach, this is seen as almost naked and Papuan men will think you want a boyfriend; respect the Papuan culture by covering your body in public; God bless you!” On the adjacent wall is a National Geographic-style photo montage of Papuan men in penis gourds and adolescent Papuan girls in grass skirts, bare breasted, looking suspiciously into the camera. It is gradually made clear to me that the Mission still concerns itself with that most nineteenth century of burdens – the ‘civilising’ of those assumed to be lazy, savage, and infantile, yet who are simultaneously idealised as noble and innocent.

Papuan Mural

Public mural from West Papua (Jayapura).

Occasionally I make it to the local internet café and engage with a distant reality through social media. But this only tells me that the academic sentinels of white supremacy ‘back home’ are still rehearsing their appeals for the overt reassertion of white pride: whiteness is just an ethnicity like any other; white majorities are set to become minorities in their own lands; whites have higher IQs; whites can be distinguished by skull measurements. I carry my visible phenotypical whiteness with me wherever I go, of course, but what Gabay calls “Whiteness” – with a capital W – as “mythologised genius” (p.2) and “a system of privilege that rests on a set of supposedly universal and ahistorical codes that represent a civilised status” (p.237) is clearly already everywhere, whether phenotypical whiteness is present or not. With all of this as my immediate personal backdrop – ongoing white missionary tutelage in West Papua and academics fostering narratives complementary to white supremacist resurgence in Europe – Gabay’s historical analysis of Whiteness feels far too contemporary for comfort. And so, I’ll willingly fail at the challenge of starting this engagement with anything other than seemingly cliched descriptors: Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze by Clive Gabay is timely, important, and necessary.

Gabay’s focus is the British and broader Western gaze on Africa but has wider resonance in European interferences across the Global South. The analysis pivots on the seemingly counterintuitive construction of ‘Africa’ in idealised forms – from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition presentation of Africa as a place, in Gabay’s terms “where Whiteness could be redeemed” (p.50) to the jubilant “Africa rising” narratives which gained prominence after the global financial crisis. Conceptually, Gabay has bestowed us with a vocabulary which clearly enriches and sharpens the study of the production and operation of Whiteness over time. Empirically, his seven years of careful archival work have resulted in the curation of an important historically traced narrative. Methodologically, he has presented an exemplary way of crafting an informed and illuminating history of the present. One central contribution is the mentioned separation of phenotypical whiteness from capital-W Whiteness, that “system of privilege” which has “always needed a place called Africa” (p.2). Another is the argument running throughout the text which holds that it is “racial anxiety” rather than economic imperatives alone which explain the way in which Africa itself is constructed in the white/White imagination.

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Imagining Africa

The first post in a new book symposium, on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Clive is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. After living as a critical ethnographer of international development and state-civil society relations in Southern Africa, in around 2016 he ditched it all for critical race studies and a love affair with a dead German-Jewish Anarchist called Gustav Landauer. In his head this all ties together because he was born Jewish, to an Egyptian father and a Ukrainian-descended mother, and had thus long obsessed over both the nature of whiteness and variants of political Jewishness that abscond from Zionism. As well as publishing Imagining Africa in late 2018 (most recently recipient of an honourable mention for the British International Studies Association 2019 Susan Strange Book Prize), Clive has also been writing a series of articles on Landauer, race and (settler) colonialism which all cohere around an anti-colonial critique of post-structural and Derridian conceptions of identity-formation and subjectivity. Two of these are forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory and Citizenship Studies. Clive tweets sporadically @clivesg.

The posts in this forum are collected for posterity here.


 

Conventionally, we have long known that disciplinary International Relations has constructed itself around a racialized hierarchy of the international that places the West and an ever revolving set of pretenders at the top, with ‘Africa’, a continent of 54 countries, at the bottom. We know this because everyone from Hegel to Huntington said it, and more importantly because giants of African scholarship and writing have also said it, from Chinua Achebe, through VY Mudimbe, to Achille Mbembe.

Huntington Clash

Figure 1: The list of ‘civilisations’ From Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Sub-Saharan Africa constituted a ‘possible’ eighth civilisation.

It is not difficult to find work in IR that coheres around Africa as a place of death, disease, corruption and state failure. Indeed, Africa has to serve this function in order for careers to perpetuated, journal articles and books to be published, grants to be won and budgets to be justified. This obviously bleeds out beyond the discipline, and is informed by discourses produced from beyond the discipline. This in itself has produced a mini-industry of scholarly and cultural interventions designed to humanise and deconstruct racist ideas about ‘Africa’ within and beyond IR. Popularly, the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa was a classic of this trope, as was the more recently viral Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, The Danger of a Single Story.

So if Newsweek decides to put monkeys on its front cover to suggest that the West is at threat from ‘African diseases’, or a reputed journal publishes an article that suggests that Africa is so messed up that it needs more, rather than less colonialism, we should not be surprised.

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Some Thoughts on ‘Toxic Masculinity’

A guest post from four friends of the blog on the topic of (toxic) masculinity. Maria Tanyag is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. Twitter: @maria_tanyag. Ibrahim Bahati is Mastercard Foundation Graduate scholar at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Twitter: @Bahabris. David Duriesmith is Development Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland. Twitter: @DavidDuriesmith. Marysia Zalewski is Professor of International Relations in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University, UK. Twitter: @ProfMarysiaZed. Each shared their thoughts and reflections on two questions – (i) How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’? and (ii) What can ‘we’ do about [toxic] masculinity?


How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’?

Maria

I have many reservations about the increasing use of ‘toxic masculinity’ (noted in 2018 as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries). As a ‘buzzword’ it simply depoliticises wider inequalities and individualises and de-contextualises what specifically constitutes the ‘toxic’ in/with/through masculinit(ies). And for me, it is no coincidence that toxic has attracted wider applications to some of its original uses in relation to health and the environment at precisely a time when we are observing the rise of extremist ideologies, reversals in women’s and human rights, and environmental degradation. If we work with the feminist idea of a ‘continuum of violence’ we might be able to articulate how toxicity occurs on multiple levels or scales, as well as how it has come to represent a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The term toxic might reveal how it is not just individuals that incite a range of bodily harms, but also to gradual depletions in health and the environment. All of these are linked to power structures and embodied in gendered ways.

In my research on women’s bodily autonomy in the Philippines, I find that in social media, concepts such as toxic relationships, toxic politics, toxic workplaces, and even toxic ‘national’ culture (as in ‘toxic Filipino culture’) are increasingly used. I find this notion that there are toxic aspects of culture that can go hand in hand with nationalist sentiments and representations of ‘Pinoy Pride’.[1] I myself have started using ‘toxic’ in making sense of polarised politics in the Philippines under Duterte. Toxic is a very appropriate word to describe how my body reacts to hearing him speak and upon seeing images of him particularly as he interacts with women. Consequently, part of self-care for me has been to ‘detoxify’ or unplug from watching local news from time to time, though I know friends who do the opposite. They ‘rant’ or vent through social media to ‘purge’ the toxins out of their system.

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