107. Leslie Brown and Susan Strega, eds., Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches
I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I do know one thing: if your supervisor lends you something to read for your comprehensive exams, you really ought to read it. So I need to tackle the books on methodology and Indigenous performance that have been waiting for my attention. The first of those, Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches, edited by Leslie Brown and Susan Strega, is a collection of essays on methodologies in the social sciences. Some of them are helpful; others aren’t—that’s the nature of anthologies such as these. What makes this book important is the fact that while I’m not engaged in social-science research, I still have many things to learn, particularly about Indigenous methodologies. Unfortunately, even a focus on a few of the book’s chapters ended up generating very lengthy summaries. There’s a lot going on in this book, however, even in the chapters I chose to read, and that explains why the summaries are so long.
In the book’s introduction, its editors express their interest in exploring “the emancipatory possibilities of new approaches to research, even when these transgress the boundaries of traditional research and scholarship,” even though such transgressions can come at a cost, “given the extent to which we have all internalized dominant ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ research and ‘acceptable’ research practices” (1-2). The purpose of this book is to “push the edges of academic acceptability not because we want to be accepted within the academy but in order to transform it” (2). That’s a radical statement; anyone working within the academy probably does want, at some level, to be accepted by it, since such acceptance results in employment, tenure, and promotion.
This issues discussed in this book, the editors continue, “are part of the challenge posed by the ‘crisis of representation’ that has confronted social science research over the last quarter century,” and they “stand in a line of feminists, critical race theorists, and postmodernists who have all problematized the Enlightenment paradigm that shapes both quantitative and qualitative approaches to research, and which gives rise to concepts such as ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’” (2). “The principles of anti-oppressive practice, once restricted to the direct practice dimension, have begun to influence research practices and have contributed to these critiques by highlighting the relationship between the researcher and the ‘researched,’” they continue (3). However, “anti-oppressive and critical research methodologies still rate little more than a mention in most research methods textbooks” (4); as a result, those approaches have been marginalized, particularly by “the institutionalization of positivist research frameworks in mandatory ethical review procedures,” which consider participants in research projects to be “research ‘subjects’ in particular and limited ways,” which limits the extent to which “social justice researchers” are able “to consider ethical questions that are vitally important to them, such as voice, representation, and collaboration” (4). Moreover, this book appeared “at a time of positivist resurgence in the academy in general and in the ‘practice professions’ (social work, nursing, education) in particular,” partly as a result of the dominance of neoliberal economic ideologies which “have demanded that practice and policy be assessed in terms of fiscal accountability and little else” (5). “This book stands in opposition to those who would retrench positivism as the basis of research and practice in social work and other practice professions,” Brown and Strega write. “Instead, we hope to assist in exploring the transgressive possibilities of centring critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive approaches to research. We want to contextualize these approaches in terms of the social justice world views they embody and express” (6).
At the same time, though, Brown and Strega do not intend to constrain or exclude other forms of research. “Rather, our intention is to contribute to the project of having research reflect, both in terms of its processes and in terms of the knowledge it constructs, the experience, expertise, and concerns of those who have traditionally been marginalized in the research process and by widely held beliefs about what ‘counts’ as knowledge,” they write (6).The notion of “research from the margins” is important for the editors. “Research from the margins is not research on the marginalized by research by, for, and with them/us,” they write. “It is research that takes seriously and seeks to trouble the connections between how knowledge is created, what knowledge is produced, and who is entitled to engage in these processes. It seeks to reclaim and incorporate the personal and political context of knowledge construction,” and “attempts to foster oppositional discourses, ways of talking about research, and research processes that explicitly and implicitly challenge relations of domination and subordination” (7).
According to Brown and Strega, positivist or quantitative research—they suggest the two terms are synonyms—“continues to be the gold standard for social science research, and in the practice professions, this research is disproportionately favoured in funding, publication, and social policy decisions” (8). Qualitative social science methodologies are “generally positioned as positivism’s binary (though less valued) opposite” (8-9). Unlike quantitative researchers, who believe in neutrality and objectivity, qualitative researchers “see social reality as subjective, and their research practices involve observing and interpreting the meanings of social reality as various groups and individuals experience them” (9). However, qualitative research tends to contribute to the entrenchment of ideas about neutrality and objectivity “by utilizing alternative measures of rigour and validity, and insisting that researcher bias can be ‘bracketed’ so as not to influence research results” (9). I thought rigour and validity were good things; according to Brown and Strega, that belief is incorrect. In contrast, critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive research is “part of an emancipatory commitment,” and it seeks “to move beyond a critical social science to establish a position of resistance” (9). This book is therefore concerned “with the development of research approaches that empower resistance,” with empowerment defined in terms of “an analysis of power relations and a recognition of systemic oppression” (10). “Research that empowers resistance makes a contribution to individually and collectively changing the conditions of our lives and the lives of those on the margins,” Brown and Strega write. “By centring questions of whose interests are served not only by research products but also in research processes, it challenges existing relations of dominance and subordination and offers a basis for political action” (10).
A central aspect of the research methodologies that interest Brown and Strega is the notion that “research cannot challenge relations of dominance and subordination unless it also challenges the hegemony of current research paradigms” (10). One way of making such a challenge—of making “overt how power relations permeate the construction and legitimation of knowledge” (10)—is by revealing “the researcher’s location and political commitments, which are obscured by methodological claims to objectivity, neutrality, and gender and race-blindness” (10). “Thus, many of these chapters centre processes of reflexivity or self-reflexivity—the need and necessity for researchers to not only acknowledge but also examine their location and how that location permeates their inquiry at every level” (10).
Brown and Strega also believe “that multiple paradigms are an evolutionary necessity and part of a commitment to social justice, and thus it is not our intention to be definitive about what constitutes a critical or anti-oppressive methodology” (10). At the same time, though, they believe “that modifying traditional methodologies through sensitizing their methods and procedures to diversity and difference is far from enough” (10). Instead, “the centre/margin relationship and other binary hierarchies” need to be disrupted (11). This book, they write, “is an introduction, a starting point to encourage further exploration of alternative, critical, and anti-oppressive methodologies,” and it is intended for those
who are interested in social science research that is expressly concerned with redressing oppression and committed to social justice—those who, because of their location on the margins, the marginalized locations of those with whom they are conducting research, and/or their own commitments to anti-oppressive practice, want to learn more about how to go about conducting this research. (11)
“Traditional social science research, whatever its intentions, has silenced and distorted the experiences of those on the margins, taking a deficit-informed approach to explaining their lives and experiences,” and devaluing, misinterpreting, and omitting their “histories, experiences, cultures, and languages (the ‘ways of knowing’),” leaving their knowledges “excluded or trivialized” (11). “The search for research methodologies that are capable of grasping the messy complexities of people’s lives, especially the lives of those on the margins, involves reclaiming these knowledges while simultaneously moving away from the binary conceptualizations fostered under existing research paradigms,” they write (11). (I can’t help thinking that artistic research might be able to get at those “messy complexities,” although it would have no credibility among social scientists as a form of research.) “The theoretical pieces and exemplars in this book focus on racialized, gendered, differently abled, and classed experiences form a strengths-based focus and as sources of strength,” they continue, thereby supporting “marginalized researchers attempting to cleave to the truth of their own experience” as well as offering “research ideas for those who are not from the margins, or who occupy both marginal and privileged spaces, but who want to engage in research practices from a position of solidarity with the marginalized” (11).
Practitioners—nurses, teachers, and social workers, that is, and much of this book appears to be rooted in those disciplines—“are being encouraged to embrace research as a core feature of practice” (although the use of passive voice in that sentence obscures who is doing the encouraging), but such research tends to be “understood securely within a positivist/Enlightenment (White, heterosexual, patriarchal) framework” (12). I think what that means is that straight white men are considered to be the “universal” human according to positivist research paradigms. Brown and Strega don’t like the demand for positivist research, and suggest that “subjecting ourselves as well as our research methodologies and processes to standards of legitimacy that are ultimately not in our own interests” is a serious problem (12). “Now we have a chance to step into the research space that has been opened up by those on the margins,” they continue. “In acknowledging that previous efforts to develop critical social science have largely failed to contribute to anti-oppressive practice or policy making, we must ask different questions about how to construct and conduct our inquiries” (12). This book, then, is for those “research practitioners” who are “in search of transgressive possibilities” (12).
Margaret Kovach’s “Emerging from the Margins: Indigenous Methodologies” is the book’s first essay, and one of the most important for my purposes; I’ve read her 2009 book, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, and really ought to read it again as part of this project, because a) it’s important and b) I’ve forgotten much of what she says. Perhaps, though, I could consider this essay a refresher. Kovach begins by suggesting that “Indigenous researchers (and by that I mean Indigenous peoples) make research political simply by being who we are” (20). For that reason, value-neutral research methodologies “are not likely to be part of the Indigenous researcher’s experience and as such we have a natural allegiance with emancipatory research approaches” (20-21). “The challenge for Indigenous research will be to stay true to its own respective theoretical roots of what counts as emancipatory as it ventures into mainstream academia,” she continues (21). Emancipatory research includes a variety of methodologies, Kovach writes. “The epistemological assumptions of these varied methodologies contend that those who live their lives in marginal places of society experiencing silencing and injustice,” and that silencing within research and the production of knowledge “is significant and disturbing” (21). “To discuss liberating research methodologies without critical reflection on the university’s role in research and producing knowledge is impossible,” she suggests (21).
Part of what Kovach is interested in doing is looking at Indigenous methodologies and their potential relationship with emancipatory research. “While emancipatory methodologies are distinct from each other and stem from different epistemologies, they share similar principles,” she writes. “For example, Indigenous methodology flows from Indigenous ways of knowing (epistemology), incorporating an Indigenous theoretical perspective and using aligned methods (e.g., qualitative interviews, storytelling)” (22). Research is a way of contributing to the struggle against social injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada; both research “and the control of research findings” have been “critical in pushing forward community-based goals of self-determination” (23). Taking control of Indigenous research “has been a long, arduous struggle with Indigenous peoples acutely aware of the power politics of knowledge,” and it “has been pivotal for Indigenous peoples in decolonization” (23). Participatory research “has been an ally,” she continues: “The critical, collective, and participatory principles of participatory research has made it a popular methodology for many Indigenous projects in Canada” (23). Protocols for such research were developed by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and more recently by the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria; these protocols highlight “the need for participation in all levels of research by the Indigenous participants and that the research benefit the community in some manner” (23-24). “The language of participation and community benefit show evidence of a shared goal—that research should be respectful and honour relationships in addition to research outcomes,” she continues (24).
The language used in describing research methodologies is important, according to Kovach. “For Indigenous research there are two difficulties here,” she writes. “One difficulty arises from indigenizing a Western concept such as research, which is rigid with definitional categories, evaluative criteria, outcomes, and goals. The second relates to language and epistemology—how it influences how we think, feel, and act” (25). “An Indigenous epistemology is a significant aspect of Indigenous methodology and suggests and Indigenous way of functioning in the world,” she continues (27). Such an epistemology would include “a way of knowing that is fluid” and “experiential, derived from teachings transmitted from generation to generation by storytelling; each story is alive with the nuances and wisdom of the storyteller” (27). It would emerge from Indigenous languages which emphasize verbs rather than nouns (27). It would involve “a knowing within the subconscious that is garnered through dreams and vision” (27). It would be “a knowledge that is both intuitive and quiet” (27). “Indigenous ways of knowing arise from interrelationships with the human world, the spirit, and the inanimate entities of the ecosystem,” and they also “encompass the spirit of collectivity, reciprocity, and respect” (27-28). Indigenous knowledge “is born of the land and the locality of the tribe”; it is “purposeful and practical,” “organic with emphasis of reciprocity and humour,” “both cerebral and heartfelt” (28). This description, it seems to me, asserts a tremendous difference between Indigenous epistemology and the epistemology that informs Settler ways of knowing (and thus most research), but Kovach suggests that “several key assertions that can guide research” can be drawn from Indigenous epistemology:
(a) experience as a legitimate way of knowing; (b) Indigenous methods, such as storytelling, as a legitimate way of sharing knowledge; (c) receptivity and relationship between researcher and participants as a natural part of the research “methodology”; and (d) collectivity as a way of knowing that assumes reciprocity to the community (meaning both two-legged and four-legged creatures). (28)
“An Indigenous epistemology within Indigenous research projects is important because Indigenous peoples will likely understand and share their experience from this perspective,” Kovach writes (28).
Connected to epistemology “is the role of an Indigenous theoretical framework in research” (28). “An Indigenous perspective/theory encompasses an Indigenous way of knowing”; it incorporates “a decolonizing objective”; “it is founded on collectivist research principles (and respects the inherent ethics and protocols associated”; “it has an ecological basis that is respectful of the natural world”; and it “values authentic/organic techniques in data collection” (28-29). (A note indicates that this list isn’t definitive, but rather a starting point .) How do epistemology and theory link to methodology? Kovach asks (29). Methodology, she suggests, is “theory that guides method,” while methods are “the techniques that a researcher uses” (29). Indigenous methodology “does not easily fit into a pre-existing Western category” (29). However, “methodology is about process,” and the “three key themes of Indigenous methodology (all grounded in Indigenous epistemology and theory)” that Kovach wants to highlight are “(a) the relational; (b) the collective; (c) and methods” (29-30).
By “relational,” Kovach means that “Indigenous ways of knowing have a basis in the relationships that are inclusive of all life forms”:
The philosophical premise of take what you need (and only what you need), give back, and offer thanks suggests a deep respect for other living beings. Integral in Indigenous methodologies is this foundational philosophy. A relationship-based model of research is critical for carrying out research with Indigenous communities on several levels. Philosophically, it honours the cultural value of relationship, it emphasizes people’s ability to shape and change their own destiny, and it is respectful. By relationship, I mean a sincere, authentic investment in the community; the ability to take time to visit with people from the community (whether or not they are research participants); the ability to be humble about the goals; and conversations at the start about who owns the research, its use and purpose (particularly if it is academic research). (30)
“Relationship-based research can irritate the individualistic, clinical, outcome-oriented research process,” Kovach admits, but in Indigenous communities “a relationship-based approach is a practical necessity because access to the community is unlikely unless time is invested in relationship building” (30).
Kovach suggests that “the philosophical premise of relationship” is woven together with “the collective underpinning of Indigenous research”:
The collective nature of Indigenous culture is evident in traditional economic, political, and cultural systems. It is almost instinctive—Indigenous peoples know that you take care of your sister and brother (the extended family, not just the nuclear one), and that’s just the way it is. Inherent in this understanding of life is reciprocity and accountability to each other, the community, clans, and nations. It is a way of life that creates a sense of belonging, place, and home; however, it doesn’t serve anonymity or rugged individualism well. (30)
Western research tends to be individualistic, with a principal investigator “designing the methodologies, documenting the findings, and publishing the report” (30). But Indigenous research is accountable to the community; it “must meet the criteria of collective responsibility and accountability. In protocols for Indigenous research, this is a central theme,” and as Indigenous research enters the university, “this principle needs to stay up close and personal” (31).
There is a link between methods and methodology in Indigenous research, Kovach suggests: “Research methods or techniques to gather data have expanded to fit a more expansive range of methodological choices,” and she believes “that Indigenous research will further broaden the range of methods in research” to include things like dreams and solitude with nature (31). “It will be an exciting new dialogue about what counts as legitimate knowledge and how that knowledge is garnered,” she writes (31). Indigenous research also involves “a plethora of conflicts,” “a maze of ethical issues compounded by the real need to sleep at night because there is so much work to do” (31). In particular, “[t]he issues arising from a relational research approach rooted in a collectivist epistemology brings to light distinct dilemmas for researchers,” particularly the issue of how much knowledge can be shared and how much “needs to be kept sacred” (31). “Questions about purpose, benefit, and protection of research subjects may arise across a range of methodologies,” Kovach writes, but “it is the answers to these questions and the standards regarding community accountability in a collectivist, relational research model that will be different” (31-32). “I propose that epistemology, theory, methods, and ethical protocols are integral to Indigenous methodology,” Kovach states, noting that such a methodology cannot be too narrowly defined because it “shape shifts in the form of theory, methods, and ethics” (32).
Indigenous people have “been researched to death,” Kovach continues, and much of that research has had no benefit to the communities involved (32). “Those of use who have pursued academic study and dipped our toes into the murky pool of research have obligations to use our skills to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples,” she argues, and that means “defining the research inquiry based on actual, not presumed, need and by designing a research process that is most effective in responding to our inquiries,” in using “research as a practical tool” (32-33). “The greatest ally of Indigenous research,” she continues, “will be those non-Indigenous ‘methodologies from the margins’ that do not hide from but embrace the political nature of research. The sustained autonomy but continued alliance between such approaches is critical. Mutually beneficial and open-spirited dialogue that is critically reflective of each other’s practice will be necessary for growth” (33). However, it seems that the most important thing about Indigenous research is its humility, since “research is, after all, just a way to find out things. As Indigenous peoples, we have lots of work ahead of us, and taking back research is one of many tasks on the list” (33). But, Kovach concludes, quoting Eber Hampton, Indigenous peoples are relentless, as well as “strong, and still here” (33-34).
I made what I hope was an appropriate strategic decision after reading Kovach’s essay: I decided I would focus on the book’s discussions of Indigenous methodologies and ignore the other chapters. That meant skipping over Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha’s “Situating Anti-Oppressive Theories Within Critical and Difference-Centred Perspectives,” which argues
that liberalism, Marxism, and White feminism overlook the socio-political realities and oppression that individuals and collectivities experience on the basis of their “multiple differences” from the White, male (although White feminists do undertake gendered analysis), heterosexual, able-bodied norm. Thus, while they may reflect a critical theoretical orientation, they fail to take difference seriously. On the other hand, I also argue that postmodern theories are more inclusive in their orientation, taking a difference-centred stance without necessarily taking on a critical perspective. Hence they do not necessarily position themselves within oppositional knowledge claims that attempt to dismantle and contest hegemonic representation of the “Other.” (37-38)
For Moosa-Mitha, “anti-oppressive theories are discrete from other social theories,” because “the engage in a conversation with other social theories that is dialectical in nature, where they contest, influence, and are in turn influenced by the ontological and epistemological assumptions of a spectrum of social theories” (38). Such “‘conversations’ . . . influence and affect social theories, including anti-oppressive theories,” in a “process that is both creative and unpredictable so that over time it is not always easy or possible to distinguish all the various strands that come together in any one theoretical framework” (38). It also meant ignoring Sally A. Kimpson’s “Stepping Off the Road: A Narrative (of) Inquiry,” in which she “focuses on research that . . . uses an autobiographical narrative approach to inquire about my experience of being a beginning researcher struggling with issues of power and representation at work in the research I was doing as part of a graduate degree” (73). “In undertaking this kind of anti-oppressive research methodology,” she continues, “I have felt the power of . . . disciplinary norms and their role in suppressing the experiences of women . . . in this case myself as a disabled woman” (73). I’m interested in autobiographical or autoethnographic narratives, but not as a form of social science research. I also passed over “Supporting Young People’s Transitions From Care: Reflections on Doing Participatory Action Research with Youth from Care,” by Deb Rutman, Carol Hubberstey, April Barlow, and Erinn Brown, which “highlights our experiences of conducting research that was inclusive of young people form care who had lived expertise of the care system, but who lacked formal research training or education,” and “the challenges, opportunities, contradictions, and contributions of this type of participatory approach” (154). That essay seems rather far from my own project—far enough that I could probably safely pass it by. Nor did I read “Becoming an Anti-Oppressive Researcher” by Karen Potts and Leslie Brown,” which seemed to be aimed at beginning graduate students in the social sciences, a category that excludes me. And after much consideration I decided not to read Rena Miller’s “Wife Rena Teary,” an account of her encounter with the palliative care system (181), or Susan Strega’s “The View From the Poststructural Margins: Epistemology and Methodology Reconsidered,” since I’m not particularly interested in attempting to use feminist postructuralism in my work, even though Strega argues that it “offers a useful approach for those seeking a social justice orientation in their research” (200).
However, the decision to focus on essays on Indigenous methodologies almost led me to ignore Fairn herising’s “Interrupting Positions: Critical Thresholds and Queer Pro/Positions,” which “presents some ways to critically explore the stances of researchers who work with/in marginal communities,” in particular “the politics of location between the researcher and the communities that we propose to enter, or the relational locations that I call ‘the thresholds of passages,’” locations that “contain continuities and discontinuities between the researcher and the entryways to the communities we desire to work with and for under the rubric of research” (128). “I propose and explore queer flexibilities and the ex-centric researcher as counter-hegemonic positions and stances that researchers can employ in forging politically ethical relations with marginal communities,” herising writes (129). Maybe herising’s use of the word “queer” might connect with Sara Ahmed’s notion of a “queer phenomenology,” I thought, and the notion of being on a threshold, neither here nor there but in between, might be of some use. At the outset, though, herising writes,
I want to challenge the notion that there is a fixed point or moment when one is a researcher or when one does research. I want to envision each and every process of researching as thresholds, where we critically attend to the complexities, tensions, and possibilities of arrivals and exists, where we are accountable to our different research relationships within various passageways. (129)
So, for herising, using the term “research” means inserting “a critical position where historical conditions and relations are centralized within the need and desire to change contemporary social and political conditions” (129). In other words, herising continues, “I understand research to mean re/search/in-g: that is, the ongoing social, historical, and political dialectical processes whereby subjects, disciplines, and practices are engaged in renewal, critical interruptions, and critical praxis” (129-30). How dividing the word “researching” into pieces conveys that understanding is beyond me, though.
Nevertheless, herising goes on to discuss the notion of “thresholds of passageways,” an idea which focuses on “the physical and psychological places of entry into communities” and on “forging relationships” (130). “The threshold is both the entryway and the marker for the spaces that demarcate the boundaries of inside and outside, of belonging and un-belonging,” she writes. “By attending to thresholds of passageways, the borders that exist between the researcher and the research participants are contested; it is essential to continually turn to negotiate these borders given the cultures and knowings that exist and are produced in relationship to each other” (130). This spatial metaphor—I think it’s a metaphor—is intended to move herising’s thinking “away form notions of origin and fixed identities to specific subjectivities and subject positions, highlighting the relational nature of spaces and concepts of spaciousness” (130).
Critical research “that attends to thresholds of passageways” means engaging with “substantive questions,” which include:
[H]ow do we negotiate the chasm between ourselves and the communities we propose to research? How are the places between these relational sites envisioned? What is the significance of negotiating the spaces between researchers, the communities in which we reside (including the marginal communities we are a part of), and the communities we are researching? What are the frictions and dissonances within and between these spaces? What aspects of our beliefs, values, identities, and knowledges to we need to disinherit, disavow, decentre, disrupt, claim, reinsert, or centre in order to work with various communities? What are the necessary politically ethical grounds that need to be cultivated and sustained to engage and recognize various thresholds in and through multiple research passageways? In what ways do we attend to our knowledges, and ethically and politically align ourselves to the vision and struggles of marginal peoples and politics in research? (130-31)
“It is essential that we critically question and consider the value of finding passages to and through research thresholds,” herising continues. “Thus, it is important to ask in what ways is the act of ‘finding’ these passages different from any imperialist/colonizing project?” (131). Research can be a “colonial and colonizing project,” particularly if discussions about making the researchers’ ideological or political biases visible sneak notions of objectivity back into the picture “by proposing that we can fully know ourselves, and that the Self is now transparent to others and Others” (131). Such notions of transparency “may become an excuse for not fully attending to the complex interrelationships and socio-political conditions of and in research” (131). In addition, such discussions “can collapse into regulatory prescriptive methods of ‘working with marginalized communities,’ thus neutralizing and masking the political foundations and emancipatory possibilities of such forms of research” (131). They can leave unquestioned “the taken-for-granted inherent right of entry” of the researcher to another’s community (131).
For herising, it is essential to think about “the contexts and tensions of entering communities, notably the ways in which the context of history, colonizations, discipline, and institutions shape research priorities and formulations” (132). “How might we decentralize the focus on research that these questions engender, and instead shift to centralizing communities and forging collectivity and solidarity of visions?” she asks. “What questions enable me/us to attend to the various passageways that we travel and negotiate was we come to and through various thresholds?” (132). The desire to and necessity of entering the space of Others needs to be questioned, herising argues:
How and why are the borders of Otherness created? How and why might research and researching reconstitute the borders of Otherness? What are the imperatives that guide the “need to know” that inform and shape the ways in which we enter communities? Why, and in whose interests, are differences enacted that highlight research participants as Othered? (132)
“Guided by these questions while probing for new ones,” herising continues, “I want to further politicize the threshold of passages by critically examining the stances, attitudes, and encumbrances of researchers, in particular, the role that the researcher occupies in researching marginal communities” (132). Such researchers have often been “accused of participating in research that is asymmetrical and lacking in reciprocity in their excavation or retrieval of information,” and the forms such researchers take have included “the explorer” and “the traveler,” characters “who extract and exploit knowledges, or construct a partial knowledge that serves within institutional containment of valued narratives without much, if any, critical interventions or transformative shifts with marginal communities” (132). Critical researchers, herising writes, “need to substantially rethink what it is we are doing when we conveive research as we do by unravelling places of privilege within research relations” (132).
For herising, the point is to focus “on the positionality of the researcher,” and in particular, the researcher’s power, authority, and privilege (133). “In order to engage our research with politicized ethic and integrity and to attend to the nuances and specificities of our work,” she continues, “it is necessary to attend to the varying plexus and intersecting trajectories of power, authority, identity, difference, subjectivity, agency, dissent, resistance, and suspicion,” which requires attention to “the politics of location” (133). According to herising, the term “politics of location” is “a means of interrupting and accounting for the formulations and constructions of one’s social-political locations,” which requires engaging in “critically reflective processes that speak to multiple power relations” (133). “The imperative for researchers,” herising argues, “is to take a critically active stance that takes into account (and accounts for) multiple histories and traces diverse trajectories that give shape to various meanings, authorities, power, and ways of knowing” (133). Might not all of this accounting, though, prevent the research from taking place?
“[T]he politics of location,” as Adrienne Rich meant when she coined the phrase, “was a call for feminists to interrogate the linkages between feminist theory and feminist practices and to examine whose theories/practices were being privileged,” herising continues. “In its broadest usage, the term is used as a means of acknowledging differentially situated subjects (difference), and to interrogate the positions of privileged identities and histories” (134). By “examining our own politics of location in relation to the subjects of our research,” we “can shift the terms of our inquiry. This examination is an invitation for us to become more accountable to our inquiries, to the processes of our research, and ultimately to the voices of the margins” (134). She cites Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s work as “an indictment of those strains of Western feminist scholarship that reproduced, however ‘innocently,’ the altruistic missionary/explorer position,” suggesting that such scholarship “not only relegate and solidify the marginal as Other, but in doing so, consolidate their own locus of power” (134-35). “Through such constructions, and the investments in marginalizing Others, the result is to deny marginalized peoples their political and historical agency,” she continues (135).
For herising, Mohanty’s work suggests ways that research can be used “to combat the multifaceted and multiple localities of oppressions:
First, we must resist easy generalizations; we need to avoid being reductive in our constructions and formulations of the Other. By situating and contextualizing ourselves, and ourselves in relation to the subjects of our research, our work can provide strategies for oppositional narratives and oppositional politics. As well, by understanding the contradictions in the locations of marginal people within differing structures, we can better devise effective political action. (135)
Isn’t it possible, though, that the role of devising political action rests with the “marginal people” themselves? Citing Mohanty, herising suggests that privilege engenders blindness to those without privilege. “Uncontested, privileging privilege cannot provide us with alternative accounts of justice or the ethical grounds to forge relations for political struggles within our research,” herising contends (135-36).
Moreover, “[a] critical engagement with a politic of location has implications for the relationships formed between researchers and communities, and for the utility and applicability of research as a politicized and active endeavour that interrupts the dominant narratives and textualities of marginal lives,” herising writes. “By situating ourselves in history and the contents of our own multiple locations, we can move toward working through and with differences based on multiple subjectivities” (136). Such attention to location and to difference can allow “us to forge solidarity on grounds that reject essentialist categories and demarcate the multiple sites of struggles” (136). “Politics of location has been used”—the passive voice here obscures who has used it—“to signal and incorporate ‘what is going on’ in the research process; that research is shaped and reshaped according to self-critique, which needs to be embedded in the various steps of research, the chosen methodologies, and in the findings and discussion,” herising writes. “The emphasis in this section is to engage in an ongoing enquiry of a politics of location that is continuous, connected, specific, and emerging in any research process as a means of always questioning and queering the thresholds of re-search-ing” (137). A politics of location is not, however, “about enumerating one’s categorical list of identities as a researcher, although this may serve as a useful point of entry,” herising argues. “Nor is the politics of location meant to serve as an apology at the end of one’s research discussion” (137). Listing one’s identities, for instance, can suggest “that the subjects of research are vastly or strangely different from ourselves, and that the researchers and research subject are socially and politically isolated in relationship to one another, or that we are internally and exclusively coherent identities,” or assume “a fixed, generic, and linear version of identity, which in turn limits our ability to engage with the complex matrix that forms and informs one’s critical self-inquiry” (137-38). In addition, “[p]olitics of location ultimately can become a reified academic state, where it becomes a tool for cementing fixed hegemonic relations” (138). Honestly, with all of these caveats, it’s not entirely clear why herising thought the notion of “politics of location” might be productive of anything positive in the first place.
Not surprisingly, herising shifts from “politics of location” to “politics of accountability”: “I want to draw attention to accountability to ensure that in stressing the critical need to ‘interrogate’ and deconstruct the markers of privilege, I do not wish to leave an impression that this is sufficient to gain entry into ‘othered’ worlds” (138-39). “Politics of location in and of itself is not necessarily transformative,” she continues. “My emphasis here is to seek ways in which we build in, with, and on the processes of attending to differences within the purview of accountability, our politically ethical responsibilities to communities under/within our gaze” (139). “Whether we practise our research from liberatory, critical, and/or radical standpoints,” she writes, “we cannot claim epistemological or ontological innocence, for we are not outside of the conditions, contexts, and positionalities of life and living” (139). Therefore, researchers “must forge and centralize a politic of accountability to communities who are/have been subjects of research,” an accountability that “must be politically and ethically enacted continuously with and in research, an ethic that calls for us to shift, change, or disinherit some of our ideas, practices, methods, and interpretations if we want to sustain politically ethical relationships with marginal communities” (139). Researchers “need to ensure that we do not reproduce patterns and processes of colonization or ‘epistemic violence’ in relation to marginal knowledges,” and “to be attentive to how we relate to and with communities, and to engage politics of location continuously in order to forestall the commodification or fetishizing of marginal identities, knowledges, ways of being, and communities” (139-40). “If we are to produce research that benefits marginal communities and promotes justice,” herising continues, “we must be accountable to marked privileges by rigorously attending to the politics of transformative methodologies and epistemologies, particularly situated epistemologies” (140). Unfortunately, herising doesn’t distinguish between epistemologies and “situated epistemologies” here; that distinction is clearly important, but it remains unclear.
In the essay’s next section, herising turns to the notions of “queer flexibilities and the ex-centric researcher,” which she suggests guide her “explorations” (140). “Queer flexibilities provide both a conceptual framework and a theoretical paradigm for critical research, while the ex-centric embodies the performative modes of research,” she writes. “Ex-centricity is thus housed in the theoretical propositions of queer flexibilities” (140). These are not “static models,” but rather “possible stances and positions,” and she offers them “as a means of beginning/continuing a dialogue about the nuanced relationships between researcher and researched communities” (140). While herising is mindful of the historical origins of the recuperation of the word “queer,” she suggests that it—or perhaps transdisciplinary queer theory—“challenges the assumed coherency and stability of chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire and posits that identity is neither fixed nor determinate, but socially constructed and contingent on time and context” (140). She cites Judith Butler’s “reading of queer as a category that will always be in the flux of ‘becoming’ in its venture to avoid naturalization and homogenization, and to be disruptive of coherent articulations of sex, gender, and desire” (140-41). “It is from this definition of queer that I wish to read the strategic position and disrupt the subjectivity of ‘researcher,” herising continues. “I want to explore the political potential of queer politics for research and researchers as offering a possible method of traversing thresholds in order to maintain ethical and political affiliations to our research relationships” (141).
First, herising argues that “like queer theory’s attention to disrupting the normative, the naturalized, and the hegemonic . . . the position of the researcher needs to be similarly deconstructed” (141). In other words,
queer theory may be used to decentre the very position of the researcher, to renegotiate the elements that “fix” researchers to their identity categories, to question the assumptions of one’s research ideas/methodologies, to consider that which is considered outside the norm of research, and to interrogate the trajectories of power and knowledge in using the margins to define multiple central locations. (141)
This understanding of “queer,” herising continues, “requires a stance that is oppositional; it defies attempts at assimilation, co-optation, exploitation, and appropriation” (141). This “call to adopt an attitude of epistemic uncertainty is paradoxical to what we come to know academically, where claims to know are cherished, where contributions to cultivating specifics of disciplines are notarized to ensure upward mobility, and, above all, where accumulated knowledges provide the credibility that underpins belonging in the academy,” herising writes (141-42). “Queer flexibilities foreground curiosity, and maintain a stance that is willing not only to critically identify and name oppression, but also seek to understand and dismantle the workings and processes of oppression,” she continues. “Allowing for marginal or deviant knowledges requires a dismantling of inherited and cultivated knowledges, and to explore the nuanced spaces of oppression rather than a mere acknowledgment of difference” (142). For herising, “maintaining a queer flexibility is a critical tool in disrupting what and how we know” which positions us “to let difference live” and to “find pleasures in the ambiguities of multifocaled thresholds” (142). “In turn, this openness can create alternative strategies and visions for a radical praxis, where bordered and domesticated claims of knowledge are contested, challenged, decentred in order to engage processes of alteration, regeneration, and transformation,” herising states. “Queer flexibilities incite a desire to find differing thresholds, multiple thresholds so that we continually return to thresholds that disjuncture normative relations” (142). Queer understandings of resistance are “both relational and oppositional,” and suggest that researchers have “a responsibility to dissenting politics” despite institutional or disciplinary pressures (142-43). “Furthermore, in queering one’s research, one needs to resist assimilationist and co-optive strategies exercised by the dominant to ensure that the very strategies that ‘define’ queer (provision and contingent, transdisciplinary, subversive rather than regulatory, and so forth) are not reproduced,” herising argues (143).
Next herising turns to the “ex-centric researcher” (143). This figure “is closely aligned to the conceptual spaces of queer flexibilities,” because “ex-centric researchers stand in defiance of dominant sites of privilege, and are critically engaged in divesting themselves of their centred locations, interests, and agendas” (143). They also “know the value of subjugated knowledges” and “focus on the commitments to relationships and the struggles to create the spaces for ethical dialogue with ‘Others’” (143). “Ex-centrics are those who commit themselves to knowing their history, and the ways in which their histories are constituted through others as one of the precursors to forming politically ethical relationships,” herising continues. “Most saliently, ex-centrics are drawn to standing outside of the centre, embracing the borderlands of various worlds because ex-centrics do not belong to any one world” (143). However, herising is quick to point out that her use of the term “ex-centric” is not intended to “valorize and romanticize the alienation associated with ex-centric subjectivities” (143). Rather, she contends that “[e]x-centricity focuses primarily on process; it is provisional and relational to the borders between various academic sites and communities, and to our own relationship and commitment to our discipline” (143). It is a “process whereby we can interrupt the terms of ‘business as usual’ and disrupt the processes that enable the academy to maintain its exclusion of ideas and knowledges that conflict with existing established knowledges” (143). (I’m starting to get confused about which knowledge is which.) “Becoming ex-centric allows for a critical stance that can challenge the reconfiguration and tightening of borders of exclusion and denial, while building solidarity with and commitment to (O)ther communities/identities/spaces,” herising continues (143).
For herising, the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and Edward Said “describe their experience of life in the marginal locations between various axes and nexus of power” (144). She cites hooks’s essay, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” for its “interplay between struggle and resistance, where she can find the multiple voices and discourses within her” (144). Occupying the margins, herising contends, allows hooks “to occupy where the process of revisioning can occur,” and “[t]he process of decentring and choosing the margin is a radical political act” (144). However, choosing the margins does not mean “occupying marginality”; rather, by “[a]ttending to the transformative potential of the margin, hooks characterizes the space of the margins as a radically open and unfolding subject position” (144). For herising, “hooks offers strategy and the necessity of ex-centricity. She refers to the possibilities of solidarity and collectivity in the fissures between privileged and marginal communities” (145).
Gloria Anzaldúa, on the other hand, “provides a slightly different look at the traits of an ex-centric researcher” by speaking to “the different worlds that she intersects; she is the bridge to cultures and identities to build a new world” (145). That “new world” seems to be defined by borders: “Borderland is the space where one finds comfort in ambiguity and contradiction, where we eschew comfort and safety to making ourselves vulnerable to different ideas, thoughts, and ways of being” (145). (Does one find comfort or eschew it? Can one do both simultaneously?) “To allow ourselves to be vulnerable to shifting means that the space where comfort is found is no longer comfortable; for shifting requires seeing ‘what’ and ‘who’ defines comfort is always historically and politically implicated,” herising continues (145). “The dislodging of hegemonic comfort zones may provide a different lens and require us to forge a different kind of relationship with marginal communities,” and by becoming “an ex-centric,” one may be able “to find the pleasures of possibilities in the struggles of positioning oneself at the intersections of contradictory and disagreeable discourses where there are penalties to be paid, and where transformational possibilities [lie] in creating research that is meaningful and engages social justice” (145).
Finally, in his Reith Lectures at the BBC, Said “talks of the role and representation of intellectuals,” speaking to “this process of ex-centricity through his metaphorical use of the term ‘exile’” (145-46). Of course, for Said “exile” wasn’t just a metaphor; it was literal as well. In any case, herising suggests that Said outlines the advantages of being an exile or an outsider: “this space clarifies the historical processes that shape how things have come to be as they are”; exile also frees the exiled intellectual “from the bonds of conventional measures of intellectualism” (146). This definition, herising, continues, “offers vision and clarity for the queer ex-centric researcher. His proposals for ex-centricity invite curiosity and allow a critical and questioning stance,” while they also “call for risk taking and becoming somewhat comfortable with loneliness, for ex-centricity can often be isolating” (146). To be “ex-centric” is to be “disloyal to the reconstitution and reproduction of hegemonic processes and dominant ideology,” about “engaging with the shortcomings of knowledges and maintaining skepticism of truths borne in knowledge” (146). The use of hooks, Anzaldúa, and Said as examples does help to clarify herising’s argument, but an example of tangible community research would have done more to make her points clear. After all, using theorists to illustrate theory is one thing; using practice to illustrate theory—if practice is the actual goal in this activity—would be something else altogether. Nonetheless, there’s a lot in herising’s essay to think about, and it suggests that I ought to return to hooks’s essay at some point, since the details of its argument are fading from my memory.
Now I have only two essays left to discuss—both on Indigenous methodologies. The first, which is in part more of a dialogue between its authors than an essay, is “Putting Ourselves Forward: Location in Aboriginal Research,” by Kathy Absolon and Cam Willet. This chapter begins with “one of the most fundamental principles of Aboriginal research methodology”: “the necessity for the researcher to locate him or herself” (97). I immediately found myself wondering if there was any overlap between this notion of location and herising’s “politics of location.” “We are of the opinion that neutrality and objectivity do not exist in research, since all research is conducted and observed through human epistemological lenses,” they write. “Therefore, in this chapter we advocate that location is essential to Indigenous methodologies and Aboriginal research/world view/epistemologies. As Aboriginal researchers, we write about ourselves and position ourselves at the outset of our work because the only thing we can write about with authority is ourselves” (97). That sounds quite limiting, but perhaps that’s because I’m used to a more imperial version of research; it could also be that, since I’m used to writing about literary texts, I’m also used to reading the stories of people who are very different from me, culturally, socially, historically, or geographically. Or it could be because I don’t quite understand the importance of location in Indigenous research methodologies and need to shut up and keep reading. Location is an essential part of research by or about Indigenous peoples, Absolon and Willet continue, since “[t]he actual research cannot take place without the trust of the community, and one way to gain trust is to locate yourself” (97). Although Absolon and Willet are writing “from an Indigenous voice to Indigenous researchers/students,” they suggest that other researchers who see “their position, history, and/or experiences as pivotal to their research process may benefit from it” (97).
“In our experience as Indigenous peoples, the process of telling a story is as much the point as the story itself,” Absolon and Willet write. “We resist colonial models of writing by talking about ourselves first and then relating pieces of our stories and ideas to the research topic. Rather than revealing the lesson or central point in an epiphany within a key statement, we hope that we have woven our ideas in this chapter within and beyond our dialogue and discourse” (98). So, no thesis statements here: instead, Absolon and Willet state that they “rely on the intelligence and imagination of readers to draw their own interpretations and conclusions about the role and purpose of putting ourselves forward in research” (98). In fact, the repetition of the notion of location indicates what their main point is. Locating oneself “is about relationships to land, language, spiritual, cosmological, political, economical, environmental, and social elements in one’s life,” they continue (98). Absolon identifies herself as an Anishinabe women whose mother lost her status by marrying a non-Indigenous man: “this sets forth the complexities of my political, racial, or cultural location as an Aboriginal women in Canada,” she writes. “I am remembered and I re-member and this makes my existence visible” (98-99). She writes of her experiences in the bush, learning “to search for food, wood, plants, medicines, and animals,” and suggests that “growing up in the bush equipped me with an extraordinary set of research skills” (99). “In my work I often find myself trail-blazing, cutting through ideologies, attitudes, and structures ingrained in Euro-Western thought that can make the path for Aboriginal self-determination difficult, even impassable,” she continues. “I expose people to new ideas and different ways of thinking, being, and doing. I am a visionary with thoughts and dreams about life as an Anishinabe person” (99). The only voice Absolon can represent, she concludes, is her own, and that is where she places herself (99). Like Absolon, Willet’s mother also lost her Indian status by marrying a non-Indigenous man until Bill C-31 changed that odious law. She also survived residential school. He is Cree from Saskatchewan. He remembers growing up on a farm off the reserve and experiencing racism at school. Those experiences left him with many unanswered questions, he writes: “Remembering and reflecting on my experiences as an Aboriginal person is Aboriginal re-search. Through the telling and retelling of my story, I am able to reclaim, revise, and rename it so that I come to a new understanding of it” (101).
However, Absolon and Willet don’t agree about the appropriate answer to the question “Where are you from?” (101). Willet thinks that question is asking about geographical location, but Absolon doesn’t think that community and reserve are synonymous: “I think a reserve is a fabricated and constructed mythology” (101). She believes that the question of origins is about a spiritual identity: “Who you are speaks to your ancestors, When you say who you are, it acknowledges them. It acknowledges them if you have a name that is your spirit name or saying your name in your language also acknowledges who you are in relation to the creator and the spirit because that’s your spirit name” (102). This approach is so different from my connection, or lack of connection, to my own ancestors; it’s one example of how a môniyâw like me will find borrowing or even learning from Indigenous research methodologies difficult.
When Willet meets someone doing research in an Indigenous community, he wonders what that person’s stake in the community might be. “The things I might say depend on whether I believe I am talking to an insider or an outsider,” he says. “I will express views that I think might be shared and see whether they are reflected in the person that I’m talking to. It’s a way of connecting” (102). Researchers should “never make the assumption that our positionality is neutral,” he continues, because Indigenous people and Settlers are not the same (103). Settlers don’t have an Indian Act or experience racist treatment (at least, White Settlers don’t). Absolon agrees:
As a researcher in a community, when I’ve done community-based research and I’ve talked to elders or people in the community about seeking answers or searching for something, I let them know who I am and what my intent is because they are suspicious of people extracting knowledge. We are suspicious of people misrepresenting us. We are suspicious of people who take knowledge and use it and we are suspicious of being exploited and used. That knowledge that we give sometimes gets turned around and used against us. (103)
So Indigenous communities often will not cooperate with Statistics Canada on census data, for instance. Locating oneself as a researcher helps the community know “that the reason you’re collecting information is to make things better, that hopefully there will be an outcome that will be useful to the community in some way” (103). Having a personal stake in that research, Willet offers, suggests that a researcher is less likely to abuse the knowledge they acquire.
For Absolon, “saying who we are and where we come from is just part of something that’s always been done”: “It’s putting ourselves forward. It is part of your honour and your respect not only for yourself, but for your whole family, your nation, your clan, your genealogy. It’s respect for who you’re addressing, or who you’re talking to, or who you’re representing. It lets people know your relatedness” (104). All of this tells people how you are invested in your research. Willet agrees; he suggests that the assumption that people can do research on topics that are not connected to them personally is impossible: “if you have no stake in a subject, I don’t see how you can do an adequate job of researching that topic” (104). Ethical research, Absolon suggests, is about being connected to or positioned in the research. Willet agrees: “I believe that it is unethical to do research in which you have no stake whatsoever—no interest, no personal connection with, no reason other than your training as a scientist. You need to have some reason for doing it” (104). And you need to be able to articulate that reason as well (104-05).
Absolon suggests that anthropological accounts of Indigenous practices are often inaccurate and biased because the researchers lack “a cultural lens upon which to base their research, or the kind of authority of knowledge to study Aboriginal peoples” (105). For Willet, a researcher without a personal stake in the topic won’t care “what the answer to the question is. They collect the data without any understanding of its context and without any personal connection or stake in the data. They make no attempt to guess what the stories collected in a study might mean to the people who tell them” (105). He suggests that creation stories are an example; anthropologists often dismiss these “as some sort of superstitious myth” (105). However, according to Absolon, “[p]art of the point of Indigenous research methodology is to take ownership of our own language, so taking language from mainstream research and plopping it in here is not what we should be doing. We need to speak from our own position and in our own voice. Sometimes we recreate” (105). Willet suggests that locating oneself means not speaking for anyone else: “It’s just my view and this is who I am” (105).
This section of the chapter ends with a suggestion that this dialogue was intended “to model and convey some initial ideas upon which to base further discussions,” and that the key themes in it are “remembering, community, ownership, representation, and connection” (106). The next section “expands on the ideas we discussed and challenges us to unlearn colonial research agendas and processes” (106). Absolon and Willet note that the work of other Indigenous researchers has “encouraged us to turn around, to look back, and to rethink the language, terms, and methods we employ in research” (106). They use the prefix “re-” “to divide issues into different sections as we examine the purpose of location in Indigenous research, thus serving the larger purpose of rehumanizing research, which is to foster a knowledge creation process that takes into account the underlying and often hidden factors of the researcher and producer of knowledge” (106). “‘Re’ means to redo; to look twice, and is the teaching of respect in the West direction of the Medicine Wheel,” they argue. “In our dialogue and through our process of considering knowledge creation and research, we found ourselves inadvertently returning to the notions of respectful representations, revising, reclaiming, renaming, remembering, reconnecting, recovering, and researching” (108). “All of these ideas are associated with looking again to uncover, unlearn, recover and relearn how and why location is a fundamental principle of Indigenous research,” they continue (108).
First, though, the next section returns to the issue of location in Indigenous research. Location is central to Indigenous research methodology, because, first, “researching Aboriginal knowledge and Aboriginal peoples without the consent of the Aboriginal community is unethical” and tends to lead to misrepresentations and exploitation (106). For that reason, Indigenous communities “are no longer content to be passive objects of ‘scientific’ study, but demand to know who is doing the research and for what purposes” (107). Indigenous communities and cultural research protocols demand to know “three basic things”: “(1) Who is doing the research?; (2) How is the research being done?; and (3) What purpose does the research serve to the community?” (107). Researchers “must be prepared to explain who they are and what interest they have in the proposed research before they are allowed to proceed” (107).
Second, “location helps to offset existing unbalanced scholarship about Aboriginal peoples” (107). “If location were a more widely used component of Aboriginal research methodology, readers would be more easily able to distinguish between authors who have a vested interest in the research and those who do not,” they suggest (107). Third, since “one of the roles of ethical Aboriginal research is to eradicate ethnocentrism in the writing of Aboriginal history and representation,” and since they believe “that research conducted from a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ location is Eurocentric” and therefore unethical, revealing one’s “epistemological location at the outset through a brief introductory autobiography” is a way of avoiding “[e]thnocentric writing” (107). And, finally, “research in Aboriginal circles” is not just about the end result, but the research process as well (107). “Aboriginal research methodologies are as much about process as they are about product,” they contend. “It is in the process of conducting research that the researcher engages the community to share knowledge, recreation, and work” (107). The final research product is “always secondary to the community benefitting from the process, and in order for this process to happen, the researchers must locate themselves” (107). Besides, locating oneself is a way to gain the trust of the community, without which research will not be able to take place (107).
The next section discusses respectful representations. “To look twice is to practise respect,” Absolon and Willet begin. “Respect calls upon us to consider how we are represented by others, the expectations that others have of us, and how we represent ourselves” (108). The representations of Indigenous peoples in university curricula are disrespectful, as are those in popular culture. “To various degrees, we all struggle to free ourselves from the colonial beliefs and values that have been ingrained in us,” they write. “Throughout the world such ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ research has been used to justify the oppression and genocide of the Other for the good of humankind” (108-09). “As we mirror and model ourselves after one another in search of our true identity,” they continue, “we form a framework for how we think we should be” (109). “When we self-locate, we represent our own truths. We represent our own reality,” they state, noting that Indigenous people tend to speak only about “their own experiences and opinions,” representing only themselves (109-10). To speak for someone else would be considered “arrogant, audacious, and disrespectful” in an Indigenous community (110). However, “[s]tating at the outset that you speak only for yourself . . . means who you do not represent or speak for,” and “[i]n terms of representation, location as a research methodology is ethical,” because it “brings ownership and responsibility to the forefront. When researchers own who or what they represent, they also reveal what they do not represent” (110).
“The concept of representation is significant because it leaves an imprint of what is true,” Absolon and Willet write, suggesting that “[l]ocation brings to the forefront both our commonalities and our distinctiveness,” emphasizing the diversity among Indigenous peoples (110). “There are many facets that make us who we are. To be accurate, our representations must take into account cultural and colonial histories and contexts,” they continue. “We must consider who we are relationally, interracially, intergenerationally, geographically, physically, spiritually, politically, and economically” (110). “[I]it is no simple task to represent ourselves respectfully,” they note:
Locating oneself is as lively and active as Aboriginal reality today. Each time we locate ourselves, our representations change and, depending on the context in which we locate, we may or may not emphasize certain aspects of our realities. Yet, as we locate, we must still account for the relative aspects of who we are and thus represent ourselves accordingly and distinctly. Location will not simply be about your name or where you are from, but will reflect more of a dynamic and transformative representation. (110)
One’s self-representation changes over time, “and thus our locations become dynamic” (110). But for Indigenous scholars, “knowing that location is transformative, is challenged in academia and in written research because academia is dominantly based in written text and print,” while “Indigenous knowledge and culture is dynamic—ever flowing, adaptable, and fluid. In a truly transformative research process, opinions, thoughts, ideas, and theories are in constant flux” (110-11). The printed word, though, “is one-dimensional, permanent, and fixed, a snapshot of a single moment in time” (111). For that reason, location, for Indigenous scholars, “becomes a crucial means of contextualizing their lens and reference points in a given time. Location is transformed as our lenses, perceptions, understandings, and knowledge are transformed” (111). But aren’t such changes typical of non-Indigenous scholars as well? Don’t we change our minds about things? I’m confused by this argument. In any case, Absolon and Willet conclude that “[i]t is better to locate relevant and distinct aspects of oneself rather than to make broad general statements. Location forms the basis of representation and is integral to writing and representing oneself with respect. When we look twice, we create our own checks and balances regarding respectful representation” (111).
The next section, “Re-Vising,” begins by stating that “[a]ny illumination of past, present, and future First Nations conditions demands a complete deconstruction of the history and application of colonial and racist ideology and, most importantly, of the impact (personal and political) of racism” (111). In other words, “we need to know how we got into the mess we’re in” (111). Writing about Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous authors reveals more about their own ideological perspectives—“patriarchy, paternalism, racism, White supremacy, fear, ignorance, and ethnocentrism” (111)—than it does about Indigenous peoples (111). After suggesting that one shouldn’t speak in generalities, that’s quite a whopper of a generality, isn’t it? Decolonization of Indigenous peoples’ minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits is necessary, and the first step is “an analysis of colonization” (111). “Thus, recontextualizing and revising Aboriginal experiences, events, and history can help us make sense of our reality,” they write. “Location in research has a role as we revise and recontextualize our past, present, and future” (111-12). Location, in fact, “means that we begin by stating who we are and we revise this statement over and over again” as new information is retrieved (112). Location is therefore iterative:
We locate ourselves differently at various points in our lives. As our recovery from colonialism progresses, we speak about our past and present experiences with more awareness, understanding, and knowledge, and we revise the stories of our lives. Revision through location is essential and integral to our recovery process. We will tell our stories one way today, then revise and retell them tomorrow. The means by which we locate may also be revised. Sometimes we locate with song, dance, or story or we locate using ceremony, language, or tradition. . . . Location as a cultural protocol provides us with an important opportunity to revise our self-concept and the way in which we present ourselves. (112)
I would suggest that it’s not only Indigenous people who can revise their stories based on experience. I wouldn’t speak about myself today the same way I did five or ten years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to give the paper I just gave at the “Walking’s New Movements” conference at the University of Plymouth five years ago, for instance. I didn’t understand my location within settler colonialism then, but my sense of that location is much clearer now. The reading I’ve been doing for the past 8 months is part of that clarity.
The next section is “Re-Claiming: Avoiding the Extraction of Knowledge.” Location is a way to reclaim one’s position, Absolon and Willet suggest, and such reclaiming “creates space for Aboriginal authors to name who they are and to claim their location in relation to their research topic” (112-13):
Aboriginal peoples must now say who we are directly and proudly, in the glory of our traditional regalia, songs, ceremonies, and languages and in the reality of contemporary issues. In reclaiming our location we assert our presence and power to define ourselves. By asserting our presence we refuse to be relics of the past. In defining ourselves we establish authority over our own knowledge. Thus, we begin to counter knowledge extraction and define our location in our own reality. (113)
“Claiming your personal space within your research and writing counters objectivity and neutrality with subjectivity, credibility, accountability, and humanity,” they continue. “We will no longer be the subjects of objective study; we are the subjects of our own knowledge creation. When we claim our location, we become congruent with Indigenous world views and knowledge, thus transforming our place within research” (113). For Settlers, perhaps, such practices of location are diminishing: without the pretence of neutral or objective knowledge, Settler researchers no longer can claim to speak for everyone everywhere. For some, that would feel like a diminishment, I’m sure.
“The writing of Indigenous knowledge is a delicate topic,” Absolon and Willet continue, suggesting that some of that knowledge should not be published (113). At the same time, there is a necessity to counter racist stereotypes and images produced by popular culture and school curricula (113). Given the power of such misrepresentations, Indigenous writers must be careful about publishing knowledge which can then be taken to feed the cultural misrepresentation machine: “Considerations such as cultural protocol, sacredness, oral traditions, copyright, and ownership all must be factored into deciding what Indigenous knowledge goes into text. However, as we record our own Indigenous histories, stories, and experiences via location, we reclaim ourselves” (113-14).
In the following section, “Re-Naming Research in Our Own Language,” Absolon and Willet begin by noting that the word “research” has a terrible meaning in Indigenous communities, because that’s how “knowledge has been misrepresented and extracted” (114). “The word ‘research’ has too much racist and colonial baggage attached to it to be used in an Indigenous context,” they continue. “If we are to gather and share knowledge in an Indigenous way, we must find new words to liberate and decolonize our processes for doing so” (114). They suggest “gathering and sharing knowledge” as an alternative (114). Another issue has to do with the use of English rather than Indigenous languages. In order to express themselves, they suggest that they have to break the rules and structures of the English language, to invent new words or use old words in new ways: “We must use the English language in a way that is congruent with Indigenous experiences and cultures” (114). “We need to transcend the rules and limitations of the English language to make it work for us as Indigenous peoples,” they continue, suggesting the work of Peter Cole, who apparently eschews paragraphs, chapters, and punctuation, as an example (115). “Ultimately, we know that the meaning of our words will often be overlooked or misunderstood not only because there is no adequate way to express our meaning in English, but also because many people lack the epistemological framework to understand it,” they conclude. “Yet it is a burden we must accept as we forge the sword of research into an implement that works for Indigenous peoples” (115).
The next section, “Re-Membering,” begins by suggesting that “remember” can mean either to recall or to reconnect (115). The process of locating oneself “establishes connection through memory” and also “re-members us with our ancestors and with our Nations” (115). They suggest that thinking of research as a “‘learning circle’” will generate “information sharing, connections,” “build capacity,” and seek “balance and healing” (116). “A learning circle also facilitates the remembering process and re-membering of individual experiences into a collective knowing and consciousness” through facilitating reconnection (116). They also suggest that memory isn “more than a mental process of recalling facts, experiences, and information”: there is “[p]hysical or body memory,” “[s]ensory memory,” “[s]piritual memory,” and “[e]motional memory” (116-17). “Location within the research process is essentially both remembering who we are and ‘re-membering’ within our Nations,” they conclude. “Indigenous researchers, we believe, research to remember and re-member” (117).
In the next section, “Re-Connecting,” Absolon and Willet note that “[c]olonization and genocide have disconnected Aboriginal peoples from our natural contexts,” and that “[c]ontextual validation makes our reality, experiences, and existence as Aboriginal peoples visible” (117). The need for contextual validation pushes Indigenous researchers to make “transformative changes in research processes and practices,” changes which are shifts in context (117). “As we (Aboriginal peoples) put our knowledge, experiences, and world views into written text, we must do so in connection to our communities (whoever, whatever, or wherever they may be,” they write. “Location in research authenticates relations within community” (118). That means working within communities (118). “Location exposes the researchers’ current context as details about the researchers such as where they are from, their race and gender, who they are connected to, and what their research intentions are become revealed,” they continues. “We take the position here that it is impossible to conduct valid and ethical research about Aboriginal peoples without locating because location asserts the identity of the writer and the importance of the research” (118). As an Indigenous research methodology, location “is one way to ensure that researchers of Aboriginal peoples and Aboriginal knowledge are connected with and accountable to the Aboriginal community”—and to “non-Aboriginal communities” as well (118). “Putting yourself forward as a researcher tells the community whether or not you are connected and committed to those you are researching,” and it also “makes the research ethical and accountable” by reconnecting “the research to self and to the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community” (118-19).
Next, in “Re-Covering,” Absolon and Willet suggest that “[i]n recovering our truths, we have a responsibility to uncover and realize our historicity,” meaning their “historical truth” (119). The recovery of truth “is evident in how, what, when, and where a person locates himself or herself” (119). This is a process of becoming conscious, of understanding one’s own experience, or realizing that “there are many truths and that within the collective Indigenous experience there are many individual diversities” (119). “Recovering, accepting, and becoming proud of who we are as we tell and retell our individual stories is a difficult challenge,” they write. “Yet location is essential to the recovery of our individual and collective experiences and identities as Indigenous peoples because it honours individual diversity and recovery of self from internalized colonialism, racism, and oppression” (119-20).
“Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers today who tackle any facet of Indigenous study must have a critical analysis of colonialism and an understanding of Western scientific research as a mechanism of colonization,” Absolon and Willet state:
For location to be insightful and conscious, a critical analysis is required among all researchers. . . . we need to be able to re-examine, question, contemplate, and comprehend how research has been used to reinforce racist notions of evolutionary thought and how research has therefore justified and legitimized genocide in policy and action. Only when we have decolonized ourselves can we recover, contemplate, and envision ways in which research can be used to eradicate racism and lift the oppression. The answers, our Elders tell us, are in our Indigenous knowledges, cultures, and ways. (120)
More is expected of Indigenous researchers, because they must master both Indigenous epistemologies as well as “Euro-Western world views” and “have the ability to critically examine Western research methods and to develop methods that will work within Indigenous paradigms” (120). They must also “have knowledge of the cultural context, protocols, and issues within which we are researching” (120). (Surely both points are true of non-Indigenous researchers working in Indigenous communities?) “Because colonization has attempted to erase our roots, ancestors, and traditions, we must work hard to recover all that we can,” they continue, and they “cannot trust non-Aboriginal researchers to record the stories of our creation and our survival” (121). “Indigenous researchers today are hard at work recovering stories, songs, histories, experiences, ancestors, traditions, and cultural identities,” they continue. “And location is a critical part of our recovering process. When it comes to the research of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge, to be ethical and diligent researchers, we must reveal the lenses that each of us, as human beings, look through” (121).
The penultimate section of the chapter, “Re-Search Methods: Affirming Indigenous Paths,” begins by noting the uniqueness and diversity of Indigenous realities, and suggests that “expressing these realities demands creativity and innovation”: “styles of writing such as narrative, self-location, subjective text, poetry, and storytelling . . . better reflect Aboriginal realities than do academic prose” (121). (I’m always dubious about social scientists—Indigenous or non-Indigenous—who have never written poetry or studied the form using poetry to convey their research results. Writing poetry is more demanding than they realize, I think. Visual artists might say the same about social scientists who decide to paint or sculpt their results.) Moreover, “[r]esistance to colonizing research methods involves envisioning and utilizing research methods that better reflect Indigenous world views,” which will “help build a foundation for the ongoing development of Indigenous cultural knowledge production in a pattern that is congruent with Indigenous ways of knowing” (122).
Finally, in “Location Equals Contextual Validation” begins with this statement: “It is time that academics recognize the validity of research processes that account for the influence of the researcher’s reality and experience. Locating self in research brings forward this reality” (123). “Aboriginal Elders and communities expect researchers to foster a knowledge creation process that accounts for many variables, including epistemological, cultural, colonial, historical, and contemporary contexts of both the researched and the researcher,” they continue. “It is putting ourselves forward that establishes these contexts, guides the research process, and determines research outcomes. Research outcomes, in turn, affect policy, programming, practice, and societal perceptions” (123). “In short,” they write, “location is good protocol for research methodology because it accounts for the context of the researcher” (123). The research becomes transformative, they continue, “both for the researched and researcher as individual stories are told and retold,” and locating oneself “ensures that individual realities are not misrepresented as generalizable collectives” (123). “Gathering and sharing Indigenous knowledge requires pride in self, family, community, culture, nation, identity, economy, and governance,” they conclude; “it requires courage to resist the rules and rigours of the dominant culture; and it requires faith that change can be made for the betterment of society as a whole, qualities that ought to be reflected in the location of the researcher” (123). All of those qualities are valuable and important, but I think it’s important not to set the bar too high for researchers. What about those who lack pride or who struggle with faith or are sometimes frightened? Are they to be excluded from scholarship because they are not paragons? Or is that a stupid question to ask?
In “Honouring The Oral Traditions of My Ancestors Through Storytelling,” Qwul’sih’yah’maht / Robina Anne Thomas focuses on, not surprisingly, storytelling and oral traditions. “Traditionally, storytelling played an essential role in nurturing and educating First Nations children,” she writes (237). These stories, which might seem insignificant, are important: “they are vital to the survival of First Nations peoples’ (238). These stories “leave us with a sense of purpose, pride, and give us guidance and direction—these are stories of survival and resistance” (238). For Thomas, storytelling is a research methodology.
Thomas talks about how she learned about residential schools by hearing stories about them. She also listens to stories told by her grandmothers: “Grama tells me about the cultural and traditional rights that I inherited through my family. I have the inherent right to have Sxwaixwe, or masked dancers, at all dances our family hosts. This is our most sacred ceremony, which is passed down through familial rights” (240-41). Her grandmother also tells her about the meanings of names (241). “Amma’s stories teach about conservation—taking, using, and throwing out only what is necessary,” she continues. “She taught me about taking care of Mother Earth long before anyone else” (241). Such stories “include important teachings that pass down historical facts, share culture and traditions, and life lessons. Traditionally, stories and storytelling were used for the same reasons—to teach values, beliefs, morals, history, and life skills to youth and adults” (241). Storytelling also taught “about resistance to colonialism” (241). “All stories have something to teach us,” Thomas writes. “What is most important is to learn to listen, not simply hear, the words that storytellers have to share. Many stories from First Nations tell a counter-story to that of the documented history of First Nations in Canada” (241).
“Most First Nations peoples traditionally come from an oral society,” Thomas states, and storytelling, as a methodology, “honours that tradition and the Ancestors (242). She feels that “storytelling enables us to keep the teachings of our Ancestors, culture, and tradition alive throughout the entire research process” (242). She is afraid of documenting those stories, however; taping storytellers is a foreign concept (242). “But as with everything, times change and in order for First Nations to have their voices heard, they have had to adapt and write down their experiences, while at the same time trying to maintain their stories,” particularly their “counter-stories” (242). “The beauty of storytelling is that it allows storytellers to use their own voices and tell their own stories on their own terms,” she continues (242). These stories are not merely supplementary material used to support other forms of research; nor are they illegitimate because they are subjective or biased (242-43).
Thomas tells the story of how she received her traditional name in 1998. The process was documented by witnesses from other communities, but that documentation, traditionally, was not written down. “I am suggesting that the level of complexity and sophistication in which major events were witnessed in our communities demands that these oral histories and stories be reconceptualized and viewed as primary sources,” she writes. (244). At the same time, however, “[s]torytelling provides an opportunity for First Nations to have their histories documented and included in the written records. In other words, storytelling revises history by naming in including their experience” (244). For Thomas, listening to storytellers is “incredibly comforting and respectful. I believe that storytelling respects and honours people while simultaneously documenting their reality” (244).
“Storytelling has a holistic nature as how the story is told is up to the storytellers—they will tell the story the way they want,” Thomas continues. “Storytellers may opt to share their culture and tradition (spiritual), how events made them feel (emotional), what things looked like, or how they physically felt (physical), or how this affected their ways of knowing and being (mental)” (245). Storytellers can include what they want to include in their stories—what they think is important (245). “Storytelling uncovers new ways of knowing,” she writes (245). But researchers have to be “open to what the storytellers deem as important about their experience” (245). Listening to people tell stories is not the same as interviewing, a word that “denotes structuring from the researcher” (245). “I knew that if I asked specific questions, I would get specific answers,” Thomas writes. “What would happen if I asked the wrong questions? What would my research look like? It would answer only the questions I asked and as such I would be structuring the process. I was not the expert; the storytellers were and I was the learner, listener, recorder, and facilitator” (245-46).
When Thomas met her research participants, “the process was more storytelling in nature and interactive than questions and answers. The dialogues actually came to be only a part of the process. The relationship that transpired between the storytellers and me became very fluid” (246). She describes her process as one of “multiple dialogic interviews,” but “there were many conversations during which I recorded and listened to the various stories of particular storytellers with little interaction other than the occasional ‘ahh,’ ‘really,’ ‘wow,’ ‘ha ha ha,’ and looks (I am sure) of disbelief” (246). Most of the dialogues took place before and after the recording: “There was no need for me to question during the stories” (247). “The unstructured dialogical nature of the interviews enhanced the collection of stories,” she continues, noting that the storytelling was an iterative process:
Initially, storytellers openly shared the ‘easy’ parts of their stories—that is, the parts of their stories that they felt safe discussing. Then, at each of the subsequent interviews, the storytellers returned to where they left off, and set out on their journey into the more dangerous, less explored territory of their experience. . . . It was after the second interview that the fluid nature of the process began. After beginning the exploration into the unexplored territory, the storytellers were often inundated with memory, feelings, thoughts, etc. At this point I began to receive phone calls at home. On one occasion, a storyteller phoned and asked me to come over that evening and tape-record; he was ready to tell more stories. (247)
“I strongly believe that the flexible and personal nature of my research supported the storytellers during their process of sharing,” she continues (247). Before carrying out any interviews or recording any stories, Thomas met with the storytellers individually and explained “the purpose, nature, and intended outcome of the research,” and got the informed consent form signed (248). “From this point on, the storytellers took the lead role,” she writes. “I met with them when and where they wanted and for the length of time they determined” (248).
“As I had chosen storytelling as my methodology, how the stories were perceived, documented, and written was a crucial point,” Thomas writes. “It was imperative that the stories remained the storytellers’ stories and did not become mine. My story needed to remain separate” (248). Early in the process she realized her power to shape the final work, but she “was determined to authentically represent the voices of the storytellers” rather than her own (248). She gave transcriptions to the storytellers to check their accuracy. “Only then did I begin to formulate stories,” she continues. “As I drafted the stories, these too were passed back and forth between the storytellers and me” (248). “This process was incredibly difficult as the transcription was not a single story told from beginning to end, but the many stories that had shaped their lives,” Thomas states. “My task was to compile all the stories into one story while at the same time not losing the intent of the many stories. I had to, in fact, find the story to tell” (248). That process “was more difficult than I ever anticipated,” she writes (248). “As much as possible, throughout the story-writing process, I used the words of the storytellers directly from the transcripts,” Thomas continues. “When I had to write a transition statement or statements, I would ask myself what words they use when they make a transition. These were areas in the stories that I would highlight and ask them to pay particular attention to” (248-49). Another struggle was deciding what to include and what to exclude. “It was very difficult to make the decision to cut a piece of the transcript from the story,” Thomas states, and when she did so, it was always in consultation with the storytellers themselves (249). The process, she continues, “should be a struggle—as researchers, we have the power to shape the lives of the storytellers and this issue should be taken seriously” (249).
Thomas struggled with the notion of how to do this work “with a good mind and a good heart” (249). She had a responsibility to the storytellers, as a witness to their stories, and therefore had to ensure that she paid attention to their words and their lives (249). Respecting and honouring what they had to say was her “most important ethical responsibility” (249). “I had to ensure that while I was storytelling, I simultaneously respected and honoured the storytellers,” she continues (249). Before the research process began, she had though that informed consent and confidentiality would be her most important ethical concerns, and her “participants were involved in all stages of the research,” while many of them wanted their names attached to their stories (249-50). At the same time, she encountered ethical issues she had not expected. She found listening to the stories of residential school experiences to be emotionally draining (250-51). “I learned to pay particular attention to the time necessary to heal between interviews and then to prepare for the next,” she writes (251). She also had to be aware of the pain her participants experienced as they told their stories. However, that problem was resolved when two of the storytellers contacted her after particularly difficult interviews: “Both of them shared the agony they had gone through with the interview, but also the lightness they felt after going back to that place and telling about what really happened. So the research would go on” (251). Sharing the stories was healing, even if it was difficult for both teller and listener (251). Thomas also felt a responsibility to her Ancestors, she writes: “what does it really mean to say that the reason I have chosen storytelling as my research methodology is because it honours the oral traditions of my Ancestors?” (251).
However, writing her thesis proved to be very difficult: the stories and the “traditional academic process” that shaped the rest of her thesis were not connected. “The message I received from the Creator and my Ancestors was that I was not to use words that justified an academic process of meeting my thesis requirements, but to believe in and use the integrity of a storytelling approach throughout the thesis,” she writes. “As such, my final thesis was many interconnected stories—no beginning and no end, but rich with teachings and gifts” (252). After all, storytelling was (and still is) a teaching tool, as well as a tool of resistance (252). “Many of us have stories in our families that have never been shared,” Thomas writes. “This in part is another impact of colonization. Stories and legends were our culture and tradition, and over the years these rituals were banned through legislation and then enforced and entrenched through residential schools” (252-53). Collecting and sharing those stories is necessary to “pass these teachings on to our future generations” (253).
“I never dreamed of learning what I learned,” Thomas concludes. “Storytelling, despite all the struggles, enabled me to respect and honour the Ancestors and the storytellers while at the same time sharing tragic, traumatic, inhumanly unbelievable truths that our people had lived. It was this level of integrity that was essential to storytelling” (253). However, Thomas does not consider herself a storytelling expert; she is, rather, a “storyteller-in-training” (253). She intends to “continue the rigorous path required to train as I see the countless gifts and teaching that storytelling has to offer each of us” (253). Storytelling touches people “in a different and more profound way” by making what she teaches personal (253). “[W]e can see how important stories are—they bring the past, the future, and present together for now and for the next seven generations” (253).
There is a lot in this book, even in the handful of chapters I read, and I can’t pretend I understand it all. What I ought to do, if I intend to borrow from Indigenous methodologies in my research, is continue to learn about them, and more importantly, try to understand the limitations to such borrowing. I do locate myself when I talk about my work, although not as thoroughly as Absolon and Willet would advocate—at least, I did so in the last two conference papers I gave—and I do agree with Thomas that storytelling is powerful as a form of learning and of resistance. (But I would, wouldn’t I? I’ve been teaching literature for 30 years.) And yet there are aspects of their discussions of Indigenous methodologies that I think are unavailable to me. That’s fine; perhaps being an “ex-centric” researcher, according to herising’s definition, means being in a position where not everything fits, where not everything makes sense. That seems to be more than likely.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press, 2006.
Brown, Leslie, and Susan Strega, eds. Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches, Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2005.
Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, University of Toronto Press, 2009.