Decolonizing Research

Last week, I had my students write about research methods based on readings from the book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.  As a community-based, participatory researcher, her words make sense and I would like to recommend her book to any course on research methods.  Specifically, she examines the interconnection between research and imperialism in the creation of knowledge and “truth.”

Those who hold power also controls “truth.”  We see this in the creation of national, state, and local policies and even our social service programs.  When those in power hold perspectives that are incongruent with the reality of those without power, this can be truly dangerous.  The same can be said with research.  When we as researchers, individuals who hold power to a degree, develop our research questions, collect data, and interpret those responses without critically analyzing the biases and assumptions that underlie our work, we have the potential to reinforce imperialistic thoughts and practices among the populations we hope to serve.

Here is a simple example.  A few months ago, I was involved in a conversation with people from a State agency who were interested in research on Native Hawaiians in the foster care  system.  Native Hawaiian children comprise about 49% of all children in the foster care system in Hawaii and these investigators were interested in conducting research on how we can help them identify how we could recruit more Native Hawaiian foster parents.

One question came to mind…Of the percentage of foster parents in the system, what percentage are currently Native Hawaiian?  A simple question I thought given the subject.  They did not know.  Well, I responded, if Native Hawaiians make up about 20% of the State’s population and there are 49% of Native Hawaiian children in foster care, you would need Native Hawaiians, who are also among the State’s poorest and most disenfranchised, to participate at more than twice the rate of any other ethnic group.  Perhaps Native Hawaiians are already participating within the range of their proportion to the population?  If that is the case, then the question should not be why more Native Hawaiians do not foster children, but why the heck are there so many Native Hawaiian children in foster care!

There was a brief silence and then the meeting resumed.  My point was not fully acknowledged and I never heard back from these individuals.  What were the biases of these individuals toward Native Hawaiians?  How does it relate to imperialism and research?  Questions to ponder.  I’d love to hear your examples.