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The “R” Word

“From the vantage point of the colonized, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to White European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research,’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary.” 

Linda Tuhiwai Smith

Up until recent years, the white, western research tradition has been used to shape narratives around Indigenous peoples in order to support and perpetuate the colonial agenda. Positivist research was a methodology grounded in ideas such as “value neutrality” and “objectivity” that sought to turn the study of society and people into a hard science. However, positivist thinkers did not account for people’s inherent biases of the world around them shaping their “objectivity.” For researchers to truly aid in Truth and Reconciliation, their work needs to be done in a way that honours communities and subscribes to the tenets of anti-oppressive research.

The Illusion of Objectivity

Within positivist research, an illusion of objectivity has been used to shape ideologies around racial “others.” Alongside colonial governments, positivist researchers have played a significant role in the deliberate destruction and devaluation of intellectual, spiritual, and cultural resources of Indigenous communitiesThese interpretations have been allowed to stand as objective reality, weaving a skewed narrative of Indigeneity. Contrary to the western scientific belief that knowledge is inherently objective and “out there” to be discovered, knowledge is neither neutral nor benign: those with the power to “discover” the “truth” are those with the power to create our common knowledge and values. The idea that “objective” research is the only way to research undermines Indigenous knowledge keeping and sharing, which rely on subjective storytelling.

Researching “On” Rather Than “With” 

In positivist research, the researched become “objects” of study. This objectification of research participants dehumanizes Indigenous peoples and perpetuates power imbalances. Knowledge is created within and through power relations between people. Those who hold the power in a study decide what information is important. Within many Indigenous cultures, identifying who you are and your connections to the community before beginning a process is traditional. The naming of one’s social location holds value for Indigenous peoples and communities because it establishes relationships; something that is, according to Indigenous researcher Shawn Wilson, “at the heart of what it means to be Indigenous.” Positivist research contradicts and devalues this tradition in its pursuit of research without bias. Additionally, objectifying participants poses a real danger to Indigenous bodies. The abuse and exploitation of Indigenous peoples by researchers while in residential schools is well documented.

Extraction Research

Many studies done in Indigenous communities tend to not be for their benefit; knowledge is extracted from them then used to bolster colonial stories of dysfunction, justifying colonial systems that undermine traditional Indigenous governance. It creates what Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox calls the “the dysfunction theodicy,” a situation where “researchers reinterpret government-caused social suffering as self-imposed dysfunction brought on by individual choices. Through these narratives, policy-makers justify further colonial intervention in Native communities, although it is ironic that these sorts of interventions created this suffering in the first place.”

“We are tired of researchers coming in and documenting all the things wrong with our communities: youth suicide, child neglect, alcohol abuse, family violence, poor nutrition, embezzlement. You would think people would want to figure out how we survived white people for so many hundreds of years. How we kept our children alive, kept our stories, kept our knowledge about how to live on the land, kept our ceremonies, kept our fires burning with hope for generations yet to come. How about some research on what’s right with us? About what makes us resilient.”

Participant at an Indigenous health conference

Often researchers focus on the oppressed, rather than the oppressor. This one-sided narrative takes the attention away from the colonizers and places blame on the colonized for their situation. Whatever the researcher’s intent, these projects disempower Indigenous communities and marginalize Indigenous voices. Additionally, in extractive research, much meaning is lost. Indigenous knowledge and worldviews are taken and reinterpreted for third-party audiences, such as government or academia. Those who participate in the research are rarely considered to be its primary audience, because few extractive researchers acknowledge their responsibilities to the communities they study.

Anti-Oppressive Research

For research to play a healing role in the journey towards reconciliation, researchers must work within an anti-oppressive framework. Its tenets offer a solution to positivist extraction research practices:

1.     Research as Social Justice in Processes and Outcomes

When used for good, research is a powerful tool for social change. Just as it can be used to suppress ideas, people, and justice, research can empower and liberate.

2.     Knowledge as Socially Constructed

Anti-oppressive research acknowledges that all knowledge is socially constructed, political, and framed by current context. Recognizing that knowledge is socially constructed allows us to understand that truth is created. Although knowledge can be oppressive, it can also be an emancipatory force.

3.     Relationships Before Research

Anti-oppressive research prioritizes people and relationships over studies. As Potts and Brown said, “we do not begin to collect data in a community until all the dogs know us.” Research relationships are not time specific or disposable. Rather, they must be approached as if we may be in relationship with people for life.

Hannah Scheinder
Socio-Cultural Analyst at Narratives Inc.