Greetings from the autumn conferences in the North: key messages on diversifying and decolonizing academic research

Text by Johanna Hohenthal

This autumn the project members participated in several conferences and seminars in the Nordic countries that all somehow addressed the themes of decoloniality, interculturality and diversity in academic research. First, on 15-18 August, the 4th Annual Conference of the World-Ecology Research Network (WERN) was held in Helsinki, Finland. The WERN has an important decolonial commitment focusing on the “critique of Nature/Society dualism as a cosmology and world-historical practice of domination”. In this year’s conference, the keynotes, panels and working groups discussed on topical issues related to expropriation, capitalocene, extractivism, and power relations in academic research. The second event was a two-day seminar “Doing diversity/interculturality/decoloniality in development research” organized by the Finnish development research doctoral network (UniPID DocNet) in Tvärminne, Finland, 27-28 September. The presentations and discussions in the seminar largely centered around the questions on how to decolonize and diversify thinking and practices in the academic teaching and research work. In the following week, 5-6 October, the reflection on these themes continued in the first workshop of the research network Decolonial critique, knowledge production and social change in the Nordic countries (DENOR) in Gothenburg, Sweden. As stated by the leader of the network, Adrián Groglopo, in his welcoming words, the decolonial initiative is especially important in the Nordic context, because the Nordic “race” has for long enjoyed its privileged position on the expense of other nations and even been put on the pedestal as a model that the others should follow. Finally, the 10th conference of the Nordic Latin American Research Network (NOLAN) was organized in Oslo, Norway, 25-26 October. The conference addressed important issues related to human and environmental rights and the state of democracy that have implications especially for the lives of indigenous and other minority groups in Latin America. The conference also had a number of interesting working group sessions on indigenous identity, environmental governance and education.

In this writing, I will briefly return to the key messages from the above meetings that are significant also for our project. See also the related forthcoming text written by Paola Minoia in Convivial Thinking.

Towards decolonizing academic knowledge production

One of the overarching themes in the events was decolonization of academic knowledge production and practices. In the WERN pre-conference event on “The Political Ontology of Corporate Responsibility research” at Hanken School of Economics, the keynote speaker Marisol de la Cadena (University of California), together with other speakers, called for questioning the power of western science to determine what is knowledge and to be the only rightful way to prove things. However, this does not mean that we should dismiss western science, but that symmetric alliances should be formed between academic and other ways of knowing in which both sides accept their concerns and power to prove as equal.

In the UniPID DocNet seminar, the guest speaker Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) continued in this line and stated that it is important that we recognize that everybody has knowledge, but it is crucial to think where that knowledge comes from and why and on which basis we tend to think that some knowledge is more important than some other knowledge. Unfortunately, the question of valid knowledge is often not about what is known but who knows it. This also has implications for how we perceive development. The superiority of western knowledge and interventions of explorers, colonialists and aid workers have been justified in the history through understanding “the other” people as undeveloped and child-like and not having proper knowledge. Colonialism was in fact “development”, but the Truman speech in 1945 separated these two and made development humanitarian and future-oriented practice. However, the idea of development is problematic, because it enforces differences and distances and makes us unable to see other people as our counterparts. Kothari also problematized the distinction between “global” and “local” knowledge. Typically, the 1st world people perceive themselves as “global people” while the people of the 3rd world are considered only “local” and thus in the need of development.

Kothari also stressed that in academic research, there is a need to move from postcolonial theory towards decoloniality. While the former has focused on identifying the continuing colonialism and bringing to the fore the neglected stories of the subjugated people, decoloniality aims to go further and change the research agenda to the indigenous, non-western perspective. This does not mean just shifting away from the western perspective but actually thinking from the indigenous perspectives and places.

In practice, we can approach decolonization of the academy in many ways. In her opening presentation in the UniPID DocNet seminar, Paola Minoia reminded us of the importance of diversifying the reading lists to include also literature written by the non-western and indigenous scholars. She also suggested that instead of focusing on abstract universals (e.g., numeric growth) it would be better to focus on understanding relationality (vincularidad) by seeking connections and correlations, engaging with border/crack thinking (Walter Mignolo), going against one single fictional Western “history” towards understanding “(hi)stories”, “herstories” and “theirstories” and going beyond resistance towards re-existance. For a researcher, this means engaging with the venues and paths of decolonial conviviality, careful listening, questioning rather than answering, thinking and feeling (sentipensar, Arturo Escobar), reflecting over inner power-relations that limit expressions and justice, bringing epistemic diversity to link to diverse ontologies (Catherine Walsh) and considering the ethical aspects of research seriously. Paola also reminded us that decoloniality aims at healing of colonial wounds and in research we should adopt a decolonial attitude (Nelson Maldonado-Torres) that highlights responsibility and taking into account different perspectives, especially those that are often silenced and made insignificant.

In the WERN preconference, de la Cadena also had a message that could contribute to decoloniality. She stressed the need to slow down thinking and the pace of academia (in the spirit of Isabelle Stengers’ Manifesto for Slow Science (2017)). Slowing down is something that is crucial for restoring the quality of academic research as well as mental and physical well-being of the academic workers. This is especially topical in the western neoliberal academia where the number rather than quality of publications, media visibility and international mobility is what feeds the flow of money and resources. We also need to slow down to be able to stop to listen and understand different ontologies and epistemologies and break the conventional academic practices and routines in order to decolonize the academia.

Can we work as allies?

Another theme worth mentioning here was something that did not seem to have an appropriate space on the decoloniality discussion in the events, but which, however, loomed between the lines on many arenas. This topic was the role of the “white privileged” (researchers) in the decoloniality projects. The issue was particularly brought up in the DENOR workshop in the panel discussion on “Decolonizing knowledge: practical experiences and strategies” where Julia Suárez –Krabbe (Roskilde University) voiced the question that many of us white non-indigenous researchers only think: “Where should we go?”. While this question may be doomed as irrelevant and, in fact, colonial by those who stress that decolonization should not be a metaphor [1], it is nevertheless a question that cannot be avoided in collaborative decolonial projects what DENOR network represents. However, it could also be argued that not only the question, but also the act of ignoring it, is not free from coloniality, because it does not aim to dispel the distinction between the colonizer and the colonized, us and them, but may even enforce it. However, Stine Bang Svedsen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) reminded that what the white privileged academics can do is first to acknowledge their own and their institutions ignorance towards coloniality and then make themselves of use in struggles for decoloniality. Maimuna Abdullahi also reminded that the white scholars engaging in decolonial discussions and working as allies should be ready to lose something in order to be conceived as reliable partners.

This theme, however, is further complicated if we start to think of the historical layers of colonialism and reproduction of coloniality of power between and within various groups. For example, the keynote speaker of the DENOR workshop May-Britt Öhman Tuohea Rim (Uppsala University) argued that the anti-racist campaigns often forget the indigenous groups and asked how the immigrants (often subjected to racist violations) could ensure that they do not become settler colonialists themselves? Also, as pointed by some people in the audience, not all the white Nordic people are equally privileged and there are many subjugated groups among them. However, perhaps it is not very constructive to focus on the never-ending discussion on who has suffered most in the history. Instead, what is important is that we now live a moment where we can start thinking otherwise, respect each other and express solidarity.

Another way to break down the colonial dichotomies between the “modern” and “non-modern” entities and understand hybrid categories such as indigeneity was brought up in the WERN pre-conference by Marisol de la Cadena who shared her thoughts based on her research experience and writing the book Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (2015). One of her most interesting insights was related to the concept of “complex we”. She told an example of a critique of presumably non-modern indigenous people who “only want iPhones”, instead of sticking to their pre-modern simple and modest harmony-with-nature way of life constructed by the romanticizing mind of a modern outsider. According to de la Cadena, it is not the indigenous people, but the “complex we” constituted by them and us who wants an iPhone. However, that does not mean that indigenous people or even the “complex we” would want to destroy the world or would not care for the environmental or human right concerns.

Contemporary indigenous issues

Finally, several keynote speakers and working groups in the events addressed contemporary issues related to indigenous people’s rights and living conditions. For example, in the DENOR workshop, May-Britt Öhman brought up important issues related to land use conflicts between the Sámi people and renewable energy production in Sweden. Her speech touched upon a particularly difficult dilemma between the recognition of indigenous people´s right to land and territories and the urgent global need to cut down fossil fuel consumption and harness alternative energy sources, such as wind power. The message from her speech is that it would be important to incorporate a decolonial perspective in the political discussions and processes that determine whose living areas and lifestyles are sacrificed in the fight against climate change. Regarding this issue, Öhman also stressed that the social scientists should familiarize themselves with technology and natural scientific knowledge in order to build critics and dialogs.

In the NOLAN conference, the anticipated election of the extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro for presidency in Brazil raised a lot of concern among the keynote speakers and panelists. The rule of Bolsonaro may mean increasing racism, discrimination and elimination of environmental laws that protect the delicate Amazonian ecosystems and indigenous people dependent on them. It may also make the academic work of the leftist scholars more difficult in the country.

Several presentations and discussions in the events also addressed important issues related to decolonizing education and moves from multiculturality towards interculturality. For example, the DENOR workshop working group presentation by doctoral candidate Michelle Francett-Hermes (University of Oulu) showed how structural ignorance and misrepresentation of the Sámi issues still prevail in teacher training in Finland. By involving Sámi experts in teacher training it would be possible to update teacher’s understanding of the Sámi and through them spread understanding to the young generations.

Having learnt about the story of the indigenous university Amawtay Wasi in Ecuador (e.g., [2]), it was also interesting to hear about the experiences from other indigenous and intercultural universities. I would especially like to point out the interesting lunch panel debate in the NOLAN conference where Alta Suzzane Hooker Blandford from the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense) represented her views based on her experience as a rector of the intercultural university. She pointed out that in order to imagine intercultural university, we need to be able to accept practices such as drawing the answers in exams instead of writing them. She also told an example of the successful intercultural training of medical doctors who were very well welcomed in the communities because they did not only understand western medicine but also knew about local herbal plants and knew how to be present and communicate with people. In the DENOR workshop, the keynote speaker May-Britt Öhman also presented her dream of establishing the Samiland Free University, which currently works only as a webpage.

These conferences and seminars make an important contribution to the “decolonial turn” in the Northern academic community. However, they are just a start and I hope that many more such events will follow. Decolonization is not an easy process and contains many difficult questions that scholars, artists and activists from different backgrounds are hopefully able to address in a conciliatory way and dream together of the decolonial future. These reflections are also an essential part of our research project and I wish that we are able to take some steps towards opening up the academic research, diversifying the understanding and forming dialogues between different onto-epistemological perspectives.


[1] E. Tuck and K. W. Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Eduaction & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-40, 2012.
[2] E. Martín-Díaz, “Are universities ready for interculturality? The case of the Intercultural University ‘Amawtay Wasi’ (Ecuador),” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 73-90, 2017.