Open and closed research Peter Munz

Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples
Linda Tuhiwai Smith
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877133 67 1

This book is likely to obfuscate politico-social debates in New Zealand because it maintains that acquiring knowledge about indigenous peoples, as distinct from the stories these peoples themselves are telling, is a way of colonising them and amounts to imperialism.

The author, explicitly and uncritically, follows Edward Said and Michel Foucault, who argue that knowledge about one culture by people of another culture is not knowledge but an instrument of aggressive domination, colonisation and expanding imperialism. Therefore, the only valid knowledge is each culture’s self-image, and each indigenous culture is to be accorded a monopoly in producing knowledge about itself. Knowledge of indigenous peoples by outsiders is a distortion perpetrated for purposes of political domination. Faithful to Said and Foucault, the book contains such statements as “we are the most researched people in the world”, meaning: “we are the most oppressed people in the world”; and “research is what other people do to us”, meaning: “research done by others is imperialist aggression”. These are summary descriptions of the colonising methodology, which is to be replaced by decolonised methodology in which indigenous people must speak for themselves rather than be researched into by others: they are to be appointed as the final judges of what is true about them as well as of the truth of the stories they tell.

If one disregards the political agenda, what the author calls “colonising” research amounts to nothing more than subjecting a culture’s parochial self-image to critical scrutiny. Such research is emancipatory in the sense that it is likely to weaken old habits and beliefs and encourage the parochial society’s smooth transition into a wider, possibly global, community. To call it “colonising” is nothing less than emotional politics. The author is coasting along on a semblance of high moral ground created by Said’s and Foucault’s unquestioning respect for and unconditional deference to the people (aka, in postmodern PC anthropological jargon, “the Other”) to be researched. But such moral high ground is a delusion, because nobody, not even an indigenous people, is reliable, let alone a good judge in their own cause.

The book ends with a very disappointing chapter which contains suggestions on how to conduct such decolonised research – disappointing because the methodology of such research, as defined by the author, is not very different from the methodology any sensible, trained observer would employ. It suggests that a researcher consult the people he or she is trying to understand and listen to them, preferably in their own environment. Is this conclusion nothing more than much ado about nothing much?

The mischief of this book consists in its failure to distinguish between two kinds of knowledge, each of which serves a different purpose. First, there is the knowledge nurtured inside every community, which serves the purpose of keeping that community together, of identifying its members and, as contemporary anthropological jargon goes, of “legitimising” it. Such knowledge is extremely valuable as social cement; but its truth value is irrelevant. Being dogmatically protected and not exposed to criticism, it is less than genuine knowledge. But the myths and other false beliefs it consists of (for example, that Maui fished up the North Island from the bottom of the sea) are more efficient as social cement than real knowledge, because, since they are not shared by other communities, they help to define a particular community more distinctly.

Secondly, there is knowledge that results from disinterested, critical scrutiny of the evidence – a scrutiny which the author blandly dismisses as “positivism”. This shows that she is behind the times, because ever since Wittgenstein, Popper and Kuhn it has become clear that the method of critical scrutiny is completely different from old-fashioned positivism, which was unable to account for the acquisition of cognitively acceptable knowledge. In such knowledge there must be, in the first instance, an attempt to find out what people say about themselves; that is, how they identify themselves. But, unlike research into the first kind of knowledge, which functions as social cement and should therefore be protected from critical scrutiny, research to achieve the second kind of knowledge does not stop there. This kind of research starts with the discovery of the indigenous, parochial stories and then continues by critically scrutinising the content of those stories. One starts, for example, with the story about Maui and the North Island, but eventually proceeds to question that story and replace it with vulcanology and plate tectonics. Subjecting parochial stories used to cement social bonds to criticism weakens the beliefs that were used to shore up the community and so tends to erode its social bonds. It does what all proper knowledge has to do: it questions and, in questioning, it emancipates.

Now, if one has a purely political agenda, as Tuhiwai Smith appears to, such emancipation is to be resisted because it leads to the erosion of social bonds and of the sense of communal identity they circumscribe. Unfortunately, she does not put it this way. She argues instead that the research which leads to the second kind of knowledge is a form of imperialism: it ought instead to be replaced by research that confines itself to the discovery of what people are saying about themselves so that their self-image remains intact and shielded from the corrosive extension of knowledge. However, without the political agenda, the idea that proper research is the instrument of imperialism ought to be replaced by the idea that all research must be an extension of knowledge – not a mere confirmation of what people think they know anyway. In short, research, in extending knowledge, is emancipatory because it is likely to replace parochial beliefs with more universal ones. Unlike the term “imperialism”, “emancipation” is a non-political concept and an objective description of what is bound to happen when proper research takes its course.

The crux of the matter and the pivot on which her misleading distinction between colonising and decolonising research methodologies turns is the notion of “indigenous”. It requires closer examination than the book allows. Indigenousness is not a sensible criterion of distinction between research methodologies. Indigenous people can pursue both kinds of research into their own belief systems. Indigenous Europeans themselves have at times both piously genuflected in front of their own belief systems and, at other times, dealt mercilessly with their own indigenous mythologies. If one wants to use Tuhiwai Smith’s terminology, one has to say that Europeans first colonised themselves at the beginning of the first millennium AD by questioning their paganism; and then they colonised themselves again by rejecting, as a result of the scientific and industrial revolutions, the Christianity which, by that time, had become indigenous. But if people can colonise themselves, the concept of colonising research (that is, research done by foreigners into indigenous peoples) ceases to be meaningful.

Unless one is in politics and has decided for some reason or other to try to shield certain societies from emancipation, the more correct distinction between types of societies is provided by the difference between closed and open societies. The former are societies in which people are bonded and identify themselves by dogmatically established beliefs and rituals that must not be questioned; and the latter are societies held together loosely by neutral criteria in which people are free to choose and pursue “cultural” activities as they please. It so happens that New Zealand can afford a high level of openness because nature, in the form of the ocean that surrounds us, has provided a natural and completely neutral boundary.

The distinction between open and closed societies applies to all societies, because all are indigenous. There are indigenous societies that are closed and indigenous societies that are open. This fundamentally useful distinction refers to social structure as well as to the research those social structures allow and encourage. For New Zealand, it has an added attraction because it was first formulated by Karl Popper in his The Open Society and its Enemies, which was written in the early 1940s in Christchurch. One must wish that Tuhiwai Smith had studied it before she wrote her own book. It is bad enough when writers are not acquainted with the international literature on their subject; but intolerable when they ignore even local – or should one say “indigenous” contributions?

Peter Munz is Emeritus Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Sociology
Search the archive
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in posts
Search in pages
Filter by Categories
Graphic novel
Natural History
Politics & Law
Short stories
YA Reviewers
Young adults
Recent issues: subscriber-only access

    Subscribe to NZ Books to access the issues above

    Search by category

    See more