112a. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies

by breavman99

denzin lincoln

This book—it’s very long to be considered a mere “handbook,” but that’s how the editors and publisher describe it—is another of the texts my supervisor asked me to read for this project, and for that reason I needed to consider it carefully. It’s a long book—600 pages in all—and as a consequence, this summary is long as well. Because it’s so long, I’ve decided to break it up into parts that reflect the book’s different sections. Otherwise, I’ll find myself posting a massive, 200-page summary that no one is going to read and that will probably crash my WordPress app.

I have many questions about the essays I’ve read in this book; some of those questions might be useful, others cranky and pedantic, but they all reflect my efforts at understanding the essays I’ve read here. The important question to ask about this book as a whole, though, is what positive or useful information can I take away from reading it? 

The preface, described by its authors, Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, as a “manifesto,” “is an invitation to indigenous and non-indigenous qualitative researchers to think through the implications of connecting indigenous epistemologies, as well as theories of decolonization and the postcolonial, with emancipatory discourses, with critical theory, and with critical pedagogy” (ix). Non-Indigenous scholars, they write, “have yet to learn that it is time to dismantle, deconstruct, and decolonize Western epistemologies from within, to learn that research does not have to be a dirty word”—they are referring to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s description of research on the first page of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples—“to learn that research is always already moral and political” (ix). A dialogue between critical theorists and Indigenous scholars is necessary, they write, and they believe that “indigenous scholars can show critical theorists how to ground their methodologies at the local level” (x), although what “local level” might mean isn’t clear. They define Indigenous methodology as “research by and for Indigenous peoples, using techniques from the traditions and knowledges of those peoples,” quoting an article by Evans, Hole, Berg, Hutchinson, and Sookraj (x), and they define critical methodology as “scholarship done for explicit political, utopian purposes, a discourse of critique and criticism, a politics of liberation, a reflexive discourse constantly in search of an open-ended, subversive, multivoiced, participatory epistemology,” citing Lather (x). “Because of their liberatory, emancipatory commitments, we believe critical methodologists can, in concert with indigenous methodologies, speak to oppressed, colonized persons living in postcolonial situations of injustice,” Denzin and Lincoln write (x), although in many places, including Canada, “postcolonial” is the wrong word to use in this context. 

Denzin and Lincoln identify Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (first published in 1968) as the text which brought critical theory and critical pedagogy together for scholars in the 1980s (x). At that time, some Indigenous scholars were beginning “to appropriate and rework Western qualitative methodologies, epistemologies and systems of ethics,” while critical theorists “were working over the same terrain, trying to answer questions raised by indigenous scholars” (xi). An explosion of theoretical and critical discourses took place. “Out of this intersection of discourses, the crisscrossing of theories of performance, pedagogy, and interpretative practice, came a fourfold interest focused on performance, interpretative pedagogies, indigenous inquiry practices, and theories of power, truth, ethics, and social justice,” they continue (xi). This handbook “charts this confluence of interests” (xi). “To summarize, we believe that the performance-based human disciplines can contribute to radical social change, to economic justice, to a utopian cultural politics that extends localized critical (race) theory and the principles of a radical democracy to all aspects of decolonizing, indigenous societies,” they continue, and “nonindigenous interpretive scholars should be part of this project,” although the way “this endeavour is implemented in any specific indigenous context should be determined by indigenous peoples,” and that “this initiative should be part of a larger conversation—namely, the global decolonizing discourse connected to the works of anticolonialist scholars and artists” (xi).  I am somewhat confused by the term “performance-based,” because aside from performance ethnography, I can’t imagine what the intersection between critical theory and performance as I understand the term would look like. 

Next comes the introduction, also written by Denzin and Lincoln. “We seek a productive dialogue between indigenous and critical scholars,” a dialogue which “involves a re-visioning of critical pedagogy, a re-grounding of Paulo Freirie’s pedagogy of the oppressed in local, indigenous contexts” (2). They call “this merger of indigenous and critical methodologies critical indigenous pedagogy (CIP)” (2). (Denzin and Lincoln are education scholars; I am not, and one of my struggles with this book will be its focus on pedagogy.) Critical Indigenous pedagogy “understands that all inquiry is both political and moral,” “uses methods critically, for explicit social justice purposes,” “values the transformative power of indigenous, subjugated knowledges,” “values the pedagogical practices that produce these knowledges” and “seeks forms of praxis and inquiry that are emancipatory and empowering,” and “embraces the commitment by indigenous scholars to decolonize Western methodologies, to criticize and demystify the ways in which Western science and the modern academy have been part of the colonial apparatus” (2). The purpose of this introduction is to outline “a methodology, a borderland epistemology, and a set of interpretive practices” (2). The focus here seems to be on research in or with Indigenous communities, although no doubt the methodology, epistemology, and practices the authors will discuss will be useful for other forms of research.

Qualitative research “exists in a time of global uncertainty,” with conservative governments more interested in quantitative models (3). “In response to such challenges, a methodology of the heart, a prophetic, feminist postpragmatism that embraces an ethics of truth grounded in love, care, hope, and forgiveness, is needed,” they suggest (3), although I find it hard to imagine those virtues standing up to the hard-nosed claim that quantitative research provides the only form of truth. “Indigenous scholars are leading the way on this front,” they contend, by disrupting traditional research methodologies and developing new ones that privilege Indigenous knowledges (3). Non-Indigenous scholars are building connections with these Indigenous scholars,” they continue, “learning how to dismantle, deconstruct, and decolonize traditional ways of doing science, learning that research is always already both moral and political, learning how to let go” (3). Let go of what? I’m not sure. Control? Certainty? Particular assumptions? All three? “Ironically, as this letting go occurs, a backlash against critical qualitative research gains momentum,” they write (3-4). That backlash seems to be rooted in the demand for quantitative, “evidence-based” research rather than qualitative research in the social sciences (4). That theme recurs in this text, and in its strident criticism of quantitative methods, which tend to be dismissed as positivistic (a bad word in the discourses around qualitative research).

However, the authors note that qualitative research is hardly innocent; it has been part of colonial forms of knowledge and power (4). Both qualitative and quantitative research are scientific and provide “the foundation for reports about and representations of the other,” which in the context of colonialism, become “an objective way of representing the dark-skinned other to the White world” (4). That’s why Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes research as a dirty word (4). They list eight historical moments of qualitative research, including the future, which is their present; it “confronts the methodological backlash associated with the evidence-based social movement” and “is concerned with moral discourse, with the development of sacred textualities” and “asks that the social sciences and the humanities become sites for critical conversations about democracy, race, gender, class, nation-states, globalization, freedom, and community” (4). Contemporary critical methodologists and Indigenous scholars are now “performing culture as they write it, understanding that the dividing line between performativity (doing) and performance (done) has disappeared. But even as this disappearance occurs, matters of racial injustice remain” (4-5). What does the word “performativity” mean here? Is performative ethnography—they cite Dwight Conquergood here—really that powerful? Do they actually expect radical social science research to eliminate racial injustice? Does any field of academic social science research have that much power?

Critical qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the gendered observer in the world,” they continue. “It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices are forms of critical pedagogy. They transform the world” (5). Well, okay, but clearly they don’t completely transform the world; the power of this form of research must be limited, or else its ambitions exceed its efficacy. This research is a form of inquiry “done for explicit political, utopian purposes, a politics of liberation, a reflexive discourse constantly in search of an open-ended, subversive, multivoiced epistemology” (5). “Interpretive research practices turn the world into a series of performances and representations,” they continue (again, why the emphasis on performance?), which “create the space for critical, collaborative, dialogical work” and “bring researchers and their research participants into a shared, critical space, a space where the work of resistance, critique, and empowerment can occur” (5).

Indigenous methodology (shouldn’t “methodology” be plural?) is located “in an intersection of discourses, the site where theories of performance, pedagogy, and interpretive practice come together,” Denzin and Lincoln write. “This produces a focus on performance, interpretive pedagogies, indigenous inquiry practices, and theories of power, truth, ethics, and social justice” (5). “Taking our lead from the performance turn in the human disciplines, we assert that the performative is always political, and the pedagogical is always political, they continue (5). Oh! I didn’t realize there had been a performance turn. The reference there is to a 2003 text by Denzin, which I would think is several turns ago, so perhaps the emphasis on performance and the performative here isn’t that important now, or perhaps I need to do more reading. (Probably the latter, although I’m not convinced that performance ethnography—the subject of Denzin’s 2003 book—is really dominant within qualitative research.) Or perhaps “performance” is a metaphor rather than a literal word here. “Critical personal narratives,” they write, “can be turned into performance texts that function as performative interventions. Such work may queer autoethnography, by politicizing memory and reconfiguring storytelling and personal history, as counternarratives,” thereby disrupting “taken-for-granted epistemologies, by privileging indigenous interpretive pedagogies and inquiry practices” (5). I have to say, though, that I’m always suspicious about the efficacy of artistic or performative presentations of qualitative research. I am always reminded of Chaucer’s words from “The Parliament of Fowles”—“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne”—and wonder how one can become proficient both in artistic or performance practices and qualitative research methods. Maybe some people can do both, but does everyone who claims to have the capacity to present their research through art or performance really have the chops to be able to do that? I am doubtful—particularly because such artistic or performative presentations of research are rarely if ever submitted to peer review by artists or performers. 

Denzin and Lincoln note that there are several difficulties involved in proposing a conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous research discourses. There is the history of research being used for colonial purposes. There is the fact that “interpretive performance theory and critical race theory” require modifications to “work within indigenous settings” (5). “The categories of race, gender, and racialized identities cannot be turned into frozen, essential terms, nor is racial identity a free floating signifier,” they write. “Critical theory must be localized, grounded in specific meanings, traditions, customs, and community relations that operate in each indigenous setting,” rather than being universalized (5-6). The privileging of Western knowledge systems and their epistemologies need to be decolonized and deconstructed; those epistemologies must become “the object of critique and inquiry” (6). In addition, “the spaces between decolonizing research practices and indigenous communities must be carefully and cautiously articulated” (6). Among other concerns, “[t]here are conflicts between competing epistemological and ethical frameworks, including (Western) institutional human subject research regulations” (6). (Isn’t that the main contention of Vanessa Watts’s essay?) Communities need to have power in research (6). Finally, critical researchers are outsiders to “the indigenous colonized experience,” despite their desire to be allies or “fellow travelers” (6). Indeed, Denzin and Lincoln quote Terry Tempest Williams’s cautions that what works for Indigenous peoples will not work for Settlers, that the stories of Indigenous peoples can only work for Settlers as examples of what is possible (6). Non-Indigenous researchers, they write, “must construct stories that are embedded in the landscapes through which we travel. These will be dialogical counternarratives, stories of resistance, of struggle, of hope, stories that create spaces for multicultural conversations, stories embedded in the critical democratic imagination” (6). There is also the very real danger that the non-Indigenous use of Indigenous methodologies or epistemologies will be extractive—just another appropriation.

Then, the authors return to the notion of performance, which they suggest is “embodied struggle,” a “sociopolitical act” (7). They’re not speaking metaphorically, either; they cite the work of Anna Deveare Smith and Daniel David Moses and examples. Of course, Smith and Moses are playwrights, not qualitative researchers; the suggestion that qualitative research must be presented as performance, or that “performance events become gendered, transgressive achievements” or models of “emancipatory decolonized indigenous research” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Dwight Conquergood’s practice is one example, but is all qualitative research performative? What does that claim even mean? And is all performance politically liberatory? I’ve seen a lot of plays that aren’t. The appropriation of an art form for qualitative research is a problem—at least, it’s a problem for me. Besides, the work of Anna Deveare Smith and Daniel David Moses is peer reviewed by other playwrights and theatre professionals, something that’s not true of performance work by social scientists.

Critical pedagogy has its critics, Denzin and Lincoln write, particularly Indigenous researchers who argue that “some versions of critical pedagogy undertheorize and diminish the importance of indigenous concepts of identity, sovereignty, land, tradition, literacy, and language,” and that critical pedagogy imposes “Western, Enlightenment views of those terms on the indigenous experience” (8-9). Poststructural and postmodern feminists argue that critical pedagogy does not “adequately engage the issues of biography, history, emotionality, sexual politics, gender, and patriarchy,” and that it fails “to interrogate the perspective of the White male theorist” (9). But the Indigenous critique seems to be more important to Denzin and Lincoln, because they follow this discussion with a discussion of Indigenous research that begins with the observation that “critical theory failed to address how indigenous cultures and their epistemologies were sites of resistance and empowerment,” although they note that this criticism “was muted by the commitment of indigenous scholars to the same values as critical theory—namely, to resistance and struggle at the local level” (9). “The ‘local’ that localizes critical theory is always historically specific,” they write. “The local is grounded in the politics, circumstances, and economies of a particular moment, a particular time and space, a particular set of problems, struggles, and desires” (9). The local carries with it “a politics of resistance and possibility” (9). Indigenous research asks eight questions about any research project, including those informed by critical theory:

  1. What research do we want done?
  2. Whom is it for?
  3. What difference will it make?
  4. Who will carry it out?
  5. How do we want the research done?
  6. How will we know it is worthwhile?
  7. Who will own the research?
  8. Who will benefit? (Tuhiwai Smith, qtd. 9)

Those are excellent questions to ask of any research project, including artistic research. “They must be answered in the affirmative,” Denzin and Lincoln argue; “that is, indigenous persons must conduct, own, and benefit from any research that is done on, for, or with them” (9-10). “These eight questions serve to interpret critical theory through a moral lens, through key indigenous principles,” they continue. “They shape the moral space that aligns indigenous research with critical theory” (10). Both critical and Indigenous “formations” are antipositivist; “rest on antifoundational epistemologies”; privilege “performative issues of gender, race, class, equity, and social justice”; develop their “own understandings of community, critique, resistance, struggle, and emancipation”; and understand “that the outcome of a struggle can never be predicted in advance,” because struggles are “always local and contingent,” “never final” (10).

“Localized critical indigenous theory and critical indigenous pedagogy [encourage] indigenists, as well as nonindigenous scholars, to confront key challenges connected to the meanings of science, community and democracy,” Denzin and Lincoln write (10). They cite G. Smith and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who call upon “indigenists” to be proactive, to craft their own versions of science and empirical activity, to develop participatory models of democracy, to use theory proactively as an agent of change, to act in ways that are accountable to Indigenous communities, and to resist new forms of colonization (10). Indigenous pedagogies, they continue, “fold theory, epistemology, methodology, and praxis into strategies of resistance unique to each indigenous community” (10). “Indigenists resist the positivist and postpositivist methodologies of Western science because these formations are too frequently used to validate colonizing knowledge about indigenous peoples,” they write. “Indigenists deploy, instead, interpretive strategies and skills fitted to the needs, language, and traditions of their respective indigenous community,” strategies that “emphasize personal performance narratives” (11). “These pedagogies confront and work through governmental treaties, ideological formations, historical documents, and broken promises that connect the indigenist group and its fate to the colonizing capitalist state,” they state (11). 

Those pedagogies also contest “the complicity of the modern university with neocolonial forces” and encourage and empower Indigenous peoples “to make colonizers confront and be accountable for the traumas of colonization” (12). A decolonized academy would “honor difference and promote healing,” and be “interdisciplinary and politically proactive”; it would respect Indigenous epistemologies and encourage “interpretive, first-person methodologies” (12). It would honour “different versions of science and empirical activity” and value “cultural criticism in the name of social justice” (12). It would seek “models of human subject research that are not constrained by biomedical, positivist assumptions” (12). It would turn “the academy and its classrooms into sacred spaces, sites where indigenous and nonindigenous scholars interact, share experiences, take risks, explore alternative modes of interpretation, and participate in a shared agenda, coming together in a spirit of hope, love, and shared community” (12). “This decolonizing project attempts to rebuild nations, communities, and their people through the use of restorative indigenous ecologies,” Denzin and Lincoln write. “Theory, method, and epistemology are aligned in this project, anchored in the moral philosophies” that are taken for granted in Indigenous cultures (12). 

“The move to the politics of performance has been accompanied by a shift in the meaning of ethnography and ethnographic writing,” a shift that includes poetry and drama, short stories and other fictional narratives, conversations, creative nonfiction (including autobiography and personal narratives), photographic essays, fragmented and layered texts, “co-constructed performance narratives,” and “performance writing that blurs the edges between text, representation, and criticism” (12). This description suggests that these forms are somehow easy to adopt or employ, that anyone can write poetry or drama or fiction that is aesthetically and emotionally powerful—a proposition that show the social sciences attempting to colonize the art practices, as I have already argued: after all, poets and dramatists and writers of fiction spend their lives developing their crafts. The suggestion seems to be that anybody can write aesthetically successful literature, which is just not the case. Moreover, that creative work would need to be reviewed by peers—poetry by poets, fiction by writers of fiction, plays by dramatists—for it to have the status of a methodology. In addition, isn’t there an important distinction to make between fiction and nonfiction? Don’t fiction and nonfiction make very different truth claims? “Critical personal narratives are counternarratives, testimonies, autoethnographies, performances texts, stories, and accounts that disrupt and disturb discourse by exposing the complexities and contradictions that exist under official history,” they continue (12-13). The “current historical moment require morally informed performance and arts-based disciplines that will help indigenous and nonindigenous peoples recover meaning in the face of senseless, brutal violence, violence that produces voiceless screams of terror and insanity,” they continue (13). That may be true, but is that the work of social scientists? “A respectful performance pedagogy,” Denzin and Lincoln continue, honours Indigenous spirituality: “It works to construct a vision of the person, ecology, and environment that is compatible with these principles,” and “demands a politics of hope, of loving, of caring nonviolence grounded in inclusive moral and spiritual terms” (13). 

“There is much to be learned from indigenous scholars about how radical democratic practices can be made to work,” Denzin and Lincoln write (14). The participatory mode of knowing that is characteristic of Indigenous inquiry “privileges sharing, subjectivity, personal knowledge, and the specialized knowledges of oppressed groups,” they continue. “It uses concrete experience as a criterion for meaning and truth. It encourages a participatory mode of consciousness, asking that the researcher give the group a gift as a way of honoring the group’s sacred spaces” (14). Such gift-giving can build relationships built on shared beliefs and cultural practices (14). “Because it expresses and embodies moral ties to the community, the performative view of meaning serves to legitimate indigenous worldviews,” they suggest. “Meaning and resistance are embodied in the act of performance itself. The performative is where the soul of the culture resides. In their sacred and secular performances, the members of the culture honor one another and the culture itself” (14). For this reason (I think), “[a] new set of moral and ethical research protocols is required” that fit Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) perspectives (14). (The link between performance and these research protocols is not clear to me.) The purpose of research according to these protocols would not be “the production of new knowledge per se,” but rather its purposes would be “pedagogical, political, moral, and ethical, involving the enhancement of moral agency, the production of moral discernment, a commitment to praxis, justice, and ethic of resistance, and a performative pedagogy that resists oppression” (14). I find that statement quite astonishing: how can the purpose of social science research not be the production of knowledge? Am I missing something? Perhaps this perspective comes from the fact that education is a helping profession, like social work or nursing? I’m not a social scientist of any kind, so I honestly don’t know.

In their conclusion, Denzin and Lincoln suggest that it’s possible “to imagine scenarios that turns the tables on the neocolonizer” (15). For instance, it’s possible to imagine “human subject research practices that really do respect human rights, protocols of informed consent that inform and do not deceive, research projects that do not harm, and projects that in fact benefit human communities” (15). “Indigenous ethical and moral models call into question the more generic, utilitarian, biomedical, Western model of ethical inquiry,” they write, and those models “outline a radical ethical path for the future” by calling for “a collaborative social science research model that makes the researcher responsible, not to a removed discipline (or institution) but rather to those studied,” a model that “stresses personal accountability, caring, the value of individual expressiveness, the capacity for empathy, and the sharing of emotionality” (15). “This model implements collaborative, participatory performance inquiry” and “forcefully aligns the ethics of research with a politics of the oppressed, with a politics of resistance, hope, and freedom” (15). Such a model “directs scholars to take up moral projects that respect and reclaim indigenous cultural practices,” thereby producing “spiritual, social, and psychological healing” that leads “to multiple forms of transformation at the personal and social levels” that “shape processes of mobilization and collective action” and help people “realize a radical performative politics of possibility” (15). (The word “performative” is rapidly becoming an empty adjective here.) That “politics of possibility” would enact “emancipatory discourses and critical pedagogies that honor human difference and draw for inspiration on the struggles of indigenous persons” (15). Indigenous stories will help us “learn new ways of being moral and political in the social world,” and help us “come together in a shared agenda, with a shared imagination and a new language, struggling together to find liberating ways of interpreting and performing in the world” (15). “In this way,” they conclude, “does research cease to be a dirty word?” (15).

That’s a good question. Maybe research can stop being a dirty word, but I think it’s a lot harder to bring Indigenous methodologies, informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies (or cosmologies, as Vanessa Watts argues) together with Western methodologies, informed by Western epistemologies and ontologies. The dangers of using Indigenous methodologies in an extractive way or of appropriating those methodologies are very real, as are the criticisms by Indigenous scholars of the project Denzin and Lincoln are describing. And maybe artistic or performative presentations of qualitative research will be aesthetically powerful, or maybe they will be self-indulgent and communicate less than more traditional ways of presenting that research—such presentations of research would need to be peer reviewed by artists as well as other qualitative researchers. So I’m cautious about the claims Denzin and Lincoln make in the preface and introduction of this text. Perhaps the essays they have collected will change my mind.

Works Cited

Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” The Community Performance Reader, edited by Petra Kuppers and Gwen Robertson, Routledge, 2007.

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition, Zed/Otago University Press, 2012.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.