From Authoritarian Boast to Awe and Wonder: A Transformation of the Understanding of Knowledge

  • Posted on: 21 November 2011
  • By: benfell

If inquiry is not merely to be a euphemism for “one of the dirtiest words [research] in the indigenous world's vocabulary” (Smith, 1999, p. 1, quoted in Denzin, 2008, p. 435), and if non-indigenous scholars are to retain access to indigenous people, then it follows that they should pay more than passing attention to how indigenous people feel about research. To do so is to shed light on what constitutes scholarship, on the knowledge that it claims to produce, the ownership of that knowledge, and even the nature of that knowledge itself. This paper will critically examine the change in how knowledge is viewed by contrasting the traditional Western authoritarian approach which indigenous peoples associate with colonization with a more recent performative approach.

To begin with traditional scholarship, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jamel Donnor (2008) critique the National Research Council's “set of fundamental principles,” which include that scholars should:

  1. Pose significant questions that can be investigated empirically.
  2. Link research to relevant theory.
  3. Use methods that permit direct investigation of the question.
  4. Provide a coherent and explicit chain of reasoning.
  5. Replicate and generalize across studies.
  6. Disclose research to encourage professional scrutiny and critique. (National Research Council, 2003, pp. 3-5, cited in Ladson-Billings & Donnor, 2008, p. 384)

These principles are also those largely upheld by Institutional Review Boards in allowing research to proceed. They are often politicized in such a way as to privilege neoliberal, neoconservative, and authoritarian agendas in the name of non-politicization and they have therefore drawn scrutiny from a number of researchers (Denzin, 2008, p. 439; Foley & Valenzuela, 2008, p. 292; Lincoln, 2008, pp. 226, 228-234; Smith, 2008, pp. 114, 124-127).

Russell Bishop (2008) points to Kaupapa Maori concerns about 1) who is empowered to initiate research, 2) who benefits from or is harmed by the research, 3) whose research is perceived as authentic and who is perceived as authoritative, 4) whose cultural knowledge is privileged or devalued, and 5) who controls all of these choices epistemologically and procedurally and who must be answered to for the choices made (p. 149). Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2008) supplements this with an ethical approach to researcher conduct that emphasizes an equality between “researchers” and “participants” with mutual caring, respect for dignity, and an emphasis on face-to-face meetings (p. 130). She points out that traditional Western ethics codes protect individuals but offer communities no voice, enabling researchers to “pick off” individuals “even when a community signals it does not approve of a project” (p. 132). That these contrasting visions of research pose distinctly different issues raises concerns about who feels threatened and who, from the perspective of their counterparts, claims but fails to acknowledge privilege, indeed about who were the colonizers, with whom so much research has been historically associated, and who were the colonized (Smith, 2008). These concerns are in no way ameliorated by 1) recognition of the influential roles that the NRC and IRBs play within the academic community, 2) the ease with which these principles would seem to accord with positivism, and 3) positivism's privileging of a unitary method paired with a devaluing of knowledge that cannot be subject to or produced by that method (Lincoln, pp. 228-234; Mazlish, 2007). Rather, Maori concerns are exacerbated by a perception that the approved approach casts their society in a pathological light because they have not developed according to Western norms (Bishop, 2008). Finally, that a Western traditional authoritarian and restrictive approach to inquiry often governs what counts as knowledge undermines any claim of traditional Western scholarship to a balanced weighing of evidence (Lincoln, p. 229), let alone the rationality that is its presumed hallmark. Indigenous peoples may thus feel themselves, their societies, their cultures, and their knowledge to be stigmatized by the arbitrary criteria of colonizers. In an era when “primitive” people can no longer be presumed to be isolated, may very well leave their villages and obtain college degrees, and thus secure access to these judgments, researchers seeking cooperative “subjects” may wish for a different foundation for their relationship than the kind that is created through an authoritarian approach. One beginning might be in the recognition that the term subject reifies a colonial relationship (Angrosino, 2008, p. 164).

A comprehensive rethinking of the relationship the traditional Western scholar has with the subjects he or she authoritatively misrepresents and whose knowledge and ways of knowing he or she commodifies “for 'consumption' by the colonizers” (Bishop, 2008, p. 147; see also Angrosino, 2008, p. 164) thus entails not only a rethinking of what counts as knowledge and how it may be gathered, but who claims ownership of it, and indeed who presents it and how. It is to “giv[e] up complete control of our own boundaries” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 163), to undertake a journey which Bentz and Shapiro compare to going to the moon (p. 160), and to undergo what Ladson-Billings and Donnor (2008) characterize as a process of destruction and reconstruction, a supplanting of the old with the new (p. 392).

To understand the boundaries to which Bentz and Shapiro (1998) refer, it is necessary to, by way of their metaphor, view the earth from the moon, to make explicit those assumptions about what constitutes traditional scholarship and to reflect upon the power relations they entail. Even beyond the strict limits of positivism, these boundaries distinguish scholarship from other activities in Western society. First, scholarship is generally performed by highly educated people. These typically are people who have made their way through the various rankings of a university—a strikingly hierarchical institution—to obtain a post-graduate degree and are often either students or faculty at such a university. To the extent that any university vets those it confers degrees upon, it is deciding whom it confirms as worthy. In his discussion of accountability, Uri Gordon (2008) connects the power to hold people to particular standards in a top-down hierarchical setting is a form of domination (p. 67).

Second, when the NRC calls for subjecting research to “professional scrutiny and critique” (National Research Council, 2003, pp. 3-5, quoted in Ladson-Billings & Donnor, 2008, p. 384), they mean it should be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals, where articles are vetted by anonymous fellow scholars selected by the journals' editors who may well have their own research—and careers—to defend. As it is only research which has survived this sort of vetting that is considered authoritative, the process may instead appear as a powerful force for resisting paradigmatic and even lesser challenges to the status quo. More than that, it constrains scholarship to a particular written form of expression in limited-circulation journals intended not for the general public but mostly for other scholars, that is, other people who have survived the vetting of academia to obtain advanced degrees. Bishop (2008) explains that “the application of research findings is filtered through the prior knowledge, feelings, and intuitions we already have” (p. 169), and in this case, “we” refers to a limited subset of the wider community, a subset which generally holds itself accountable not to standards set by that wider community but rather those of its own choosing. Finally, a scholar accrues considerable professional benefits from publication, often that is, presenting oneself—based on the scholar's experience of the duration of the research project rather than on a native's lifetime of immersion in her or his culture—as an authority on the customs and meanings in that culture. This means that the system rewards those who produce approved knowledge even when that knowledge may misrepresent or pathologize “other” people (Bishop, p. 147; Foley & Valenzuela, 2008, p. 293; Smith, 2008, p. 134).

Taken in sum, this critique of traditional Western scholarship fundamentally challenges its assertion of authority, a “normativeness” to which Bentz and Shapiro (1998) refer (p. 149), over what constitutes inquiry. It opens the door to a variety of methods, both in inquiry and in presentation, that serve to highlight knowledge which would otherwise remain suppressed or unacknowledged. Bentz and Shapiro point to this normativeness in a chapter on critical theory and it is thus unsurprising that critical theory, which highlights issues of authority, historical context, internal consistency, ideology, and emancipation, is itself one of these methods. But arising in part from critical theory are methods that equate inquiry with participation and broaden inquiry far beyond the limitations of the literate form of reductionist analysis that prevails in traditional Western scholarship, fulfilling a hermeneutic goal of enriched understanding (Bentz & Shapiro, p. 109). Bishop (2008) writes, “The very act of participation was knowing. Participation was direct, somatic (bodily), psychic, spiritual, and emotional involvement” (p. 173). Denzin (2008) suggests that scholars participate in a decolonizing project of indigenous participatory theater, where inquiry seems to take the form of recalling and ridiculing historical discourses about the “other” that rationalized colonization by universalizing European values as superior for all societies and by considering the absence of such values in “other” societies as a sign of inferiority (Denzin, p. 436; Said, 2005). Stacy Holman Jones (2008) emphasizes performative autoethnography for the telling of intense personal experiences as “the kind [of art] that takes you deeper inside yourself and ultimately out again” (Friedwald, 1996, p. 126, quoted in Jones, p. 208). Even in her treatment of creations of those who are now long dead, she uses performance to bring them to life, investing herself in her interpretation of old texts (Jones, p. 214).

Performativity points to the impossibility of separating our life stories from the social, cultural, and political contexts in which they are created and the ways in which performance as a site of dialogue and negotiation is itself a contested space (Diamond, 1996, p. 2). (Jones, 2008, p. 221)

These performative methods do more than supplant the archetype of a scholar alone at (all too often) his computer, having gathered his research and drawn his conclusions, composing an article for publication. Performance, on the other hand, involves both performers and audience in a system of mutual causation that produces something more than the sum of individual performers and audience members (Montuori & Purser, 1999, p. 19). This experience—this knowledge—cannot be precisely replicated in any other setting, for each performance is somehow different, by virtue of audience, by virtue of performers, by virtue of time, and by virtue of place, and in their treatment of historical events these performative methods risk replacing the context of the past with the context of a staged present. But where this is in fact true even for the supposedly lone scholar, as each reader draws her or his own meaning from any given text, performative autoethnography in fact does nothing more radical than to recognize, accept, and even embrace this dynamic, recognizing knowledge as itself dynamic rather than as static, as individual in each experience and particular to each occasion rather than as universal, and as inherently subjective rather than objective.

There is, however, one function of the traditional Western university whose diminution would be cause for reflection, if not a twinge of regret. To the extent that knowledge can be termed “simple” (Smith, 2008, p. 114) and universally-applicable or, perhaps more aptly, monolithic, it can be commodified for scholarly consumption (Bishop, 2008, p. 147) and transmitted, albeit poorly and counterproductively in Paulo Freire's (2006) view, from professors to students. Freire disparages what he calls a “banking deposit” model of education, which one might less charitably call a “swallow and regurgitate” model of learning, and sees a deficiency in the development of critical thinking. But to the remaining extent that knowledge can still be treated as universal, it is as an ecosystem indistinct from the reality of a multifaceted—not monolithic—universe itself, in which each sentient being occupies her or his own niche (Morin, 2008). Such knowledge is simply each individual's experience of the universe itself together with the experience of its sharing with and from others. Such an understanding of knowledge just begins to embrace a richness that is likely beyond human comprehension, that compels us to modesty and awe. It compels us to share the Kaupapa Maori disdain for the boastfulness of pretending to possess knowledge superior to others (Smith, 2008, p. 130). And it may transform the university from a place of authoritative knowledge to a place where the skills of “explicit, disciplined inquiry that is called research” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 161) may still be shared and more highly emphasized.


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