Why Positionalities Matter and What They Have to do with Knowledge Production

by Julia Schöneberg, Arda Bilgen, and Aftab Nasir

Coming from three different educational, geographical, and class backgrounds, the three of us met for the first time in a research institute in Germany. Together with a group of international colleagues, we were eager to be trained in Development Studies and pursue a PhD degree. In reminiscing about this journey many years later, we shared the struggles and challenges we experienced during our so-called ‘fieldwork’ stays in very different geographies and realised that there was a blatant gap not only in the way we approached our research, but also in the way we were trained: a lack of confrontation with the centrality of power and positionality in ‘development’ research (or any kind of research for that matter) – and a disregard of the colonial legacy in the way knowledge is created and considered legitimate.

‘Development’ and its colonial legacy

Let us go one step back and explain. The core and crux of it all is the term, the practice and the discourse of ‘development‘. There has been much critique and contestation in the past two decades  (Arturo Escobar’s seminal book ‘Encountering Development’ or the ‘Development Dictionary’ edited by Wolfgang Sachs, to name just a few). Once considered innovative and progressive for acknowledging the power relations between providers and recipients of ‘development’, concepts such as ‘alternative development’ and buzzwords like ‘participation’ and/or ‘empowerment’ have become incorporated into the mainstream. Likewise, and more recently, the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’, #RhodesMustFall, and Black Lives Matter movements have put post- and decolonial viewpoints  on the agenda, some of which have been readily (and most tokenistically as some criticise) adapted for syllabi and curricula, and co-opted without challenging underlying unjust structures. What we still see is that asymmetrical power relations within and among the actors and supposed beneficiaries of ‘development’ remain dominant. This is visible in the ways ‘development’ is taught, researched, and practised. To be very clear: ‘Development’ as a concept, a practice, and a field of study is far from having shed its hierarchical, patriarchal, and colonial underpinnings.

Positionality and knowledge production

So how did the fact that we were knowingly and unknowingly embedded in this problematic history and present impact on us as early career researchers in pursuit of a PhD? We were in the same cohort in the same interdisciplinary doctoral programme. From outside, we were simply three students. Yet, looking more closely, our positionalities shaped the way we were approaching our topics, and guided our ‘fieldwork’ and research. Even though ‘field research’ itself is a problematic concept with many postcolonial implications, it remains to be an essential part in almost all PhD programmes in ‘development’ studies. Our programme was no exception in this regard, and we had to undergo a complex process and get various ethical clearance forms signed before we could travel. As expected, these forms were mostly concerned with important, but rather technical issues such as informed consent, data management, data privacy, and so on. What wasn’t addressed at all were the underlying assumptions on who would do what kind of research, and why. In the whole process, the following three points were particularly uncomfortable:

  • The separation between the West and the Rest

It was an unspoken rule of the institution that students from the global South were expected to research their own countries or any other country located in the global South, while students from the global North had the liberty to also choose from any country not in the global South, mainly without prior knowledge of, or connection with, the respective countries. Ostensibly, these choices were shaped not by the conveniences or inconveniences of doing ‘fieldwork’ in familiar or unfamiliar research settings, but by some other, unclear criteria. Consequently, Arda left to conduct research in (and on) Turkey, Aftab set off to his home country Pakistan, whereas Julia simply decided Haiti would be an interesting place to research and chose to go there. In hindsight, this (not so subtle) difference was a sign of the dichotomous thinking that still separates the West and the Rest, making the underdevelopment of the latter a research topic of the former in a more than problematic way. Clearly, Aftab and Arda would not be considered qualified enough to research on, say, Germany, whereas Julia’s expertise, who neither spoke French nor Haitian Creole when she left for Haiti for the very first time, was in no way challenged.

  • The production of ‘development’ experts

As many other PhD programmes in the global North, our PhD programme explicitly aimed at producing ‘development’ experts who, having enjoyed German academic and professional training, would return to their native countries with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue ‘development’ there, ideally in collaboration with German funding organisations. Despite the fact that all three of us were very lucky to have supervisors and tutors who encouraged us to critically contest and challenge the very idea of ‘development’, overall there was a tangible focus on exploring techno-economic questions such as: How can ‘development’ be made more efficient? What technical or social fixes are necessary to solve ‘underdevelopment’ in this or that country? Whereas the epistemological and/or ontological challenges, nuanced interpretations, and multiple ways of identifying with various concepts of ‘development’ that are inadvertently under contestation (read: power dynamics) would not qualify to be a sound or grounded ‘research question’.  These would rather be considered rhetoric or romantic, too idealistic for an empirical research, to say the least in the planning phases of our researches. In hindsight, we also became ‘experts’ in finding gaps within the boundaries set for us, not those that lead to questioning these boundaries altogether. In short, in Fanon’s words, we were able to peel off the raw, unpolished “black” skin and put on the sophisticated “white” mask that guaranteed recognition, acceptance and career security among our peers.

  • Being insider, outsider, or both

Even though the fluidity of ‘insiderness’ and ‘outsiderness’ in a research setting as well as the challenges of doing ‘fieldwork’ at home are increasingly acknowledged and discussed today, Arda and Aftab were naturally considered as being able to assume insider position in their native countries. Julia, in contrast, as a complete outsider, was assumed to be able to provide a fresh glance on the local issues of ‘underdevelopment.’ Unsurprisingly, during our ‘fieldwork’ relationships of power played out in many different ways, positioning us as insiders, outsiders, or both simultaneously in different contexts. While we were unprepared in some ways, it should not have come to us as a surprise. All three of us were travelling with colonial baggage that we carried due to either being from the West or having been educated in the West, and the fact that we were all sent as part of an uncomfortable and institutionally asymmetric constellation of knowledge hierarchies in which it is always the Westerner, the Western-educated, or the Western-affiliated who has the authority to produce legitimate knowledge. Whether we were insiders, outsiders, or both, at the centre of this circle always remained a Western institution, around which we were ‘positioned’ in relation to our distance from this centre. Here, the German word Zentrum has a different and ironical shade hidden in it. Our identities proved to be peripheral references in relation to these centres we were affiliated with.

Only the start of a journey

What is our learning from this long and arduous PhD journey? We have come to realise that it must be constantly questioned who researches ‘development’, how, why, where, and when. Any research that overlooks the power dynamics in ‘development’ must be replaced with a power-sensitive and socio-politically conscious approach of ‘knowledge co-construction’, which acknowledges, engages, and draws on non-hierarchical ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies. And there’s much work that has been done here already. Points of departure to start reading and engaging are, among many other spaces, Global Social Theory, Decolonial Dialogues or Convivial Thinking. Seriously and sincerely engaging with the complex entanglements of power, positionality, and knowledge production can be personally and individually daunting and challenging, because it fundamentally questions research(er)s’ legitimacy. There may be points when it is apt to listen, even to withdraw, rather than to claim expertise and truth.

In hindsight, looking back at our PhD journeys, we wish we could have more overtly challenged the structures that produced and implemented inequalities and injustices, the apparatus that was ‘doing the developing’ – both in academia and in ‘the field’ – and the historical traces on which it was built. This blog and our collaboratively written article can be read as an effort to make up for our past neglect of the critical gaze. We look forward to continuing this dialogue and journey with fellow travellers.

This blost post is based on the full article : “Why positionalities matter: reflections on power, hierarchy, and knowledges in “development” research”

Julia Schöneberg is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kassel. Her research focusses on practical Postdevelopment, social movements and resistances, as well as decolonial approaches to knowledge co-creation and pedagogy.

Arda Bilgen is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. His research focuses on water politics, infrastructure development, and the linkages between conflict, security, and development

Aftab Nasir is an Assistant Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Forman Christian College University. His research interests are post-colonial epistemologies, sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political sociology, and development studies.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay