Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

By Mark Griffiths, Northumbria University

j-_vermeer_-_el_geografo_museo_stadel_francfort_del_meno_1669

Johannes Vermeer The Geographer (1669). Available via United States Public Domain license.

Geographers have never been more acutely aware of the historical and contemporary cleavages of which we – or so many of us – are often both critics and beneficiaries. This year’s RGS-IBG Conference carries the theme of ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’, while the other large conference, the AAG Meeting, is currently reacting to the damage brought by President Trump’s recent anti-Islam Executive Orders. These are worrying times that lay bare the legacies of formal colonialism and the persistence of western privilege. Particularly worrying is that geographers from outside the publishing heartlands – whose work is invaluable if we are to know anything at all about diverse places and people – will, as always, feel the brunt of these neocolonial measures brought by the new Trump Administration.

There is then a renewed focus on the haves and have-nots of people across the globe, geographers very much included. In this heated moment it feels very new, but while it might be true that we have never seen anything like Donald Trump before, it is not novel to have privileges skewed across space. This is not at all to dismiss the deleterious acts we’ve seen recently (and the silent complicity of too many), but it does serve to recall that our discipline has grown out of a history of uneven power relations with post/colonial places and people. As I point out in my recently published paper in Area, part of the privilege of western geographers in terms of ‘mobilities, institutional prestige, access to publishing avenues and so forth’ is owed to the spoils of empire.

We can therefore understand the privilege of western academics and geographers as historically constituted, where, say, the ‘permission to narrate’ (as Edward Said put it) or the ability to cross borders is tied intimately with one’s ancestral position within colonial-era relations. Couple this with important feminist interventions on the situatedness of knowledge and positionality as relational, and the self-reflection (or ‘hyper-self-reflection’ as Gayatri Spivak calls for) incumbent on us all when we embark on fieldwork in a “postcolonial context” can reveal much about how the past bears on the present and the means to carry out research.

For me, a white, British man working at a UK institution, those means are great. I therefore must include myself in a loose category of ‘privileged western researcher’ that has – rightly – brought much introspection from that part of our research community involved in working towards a de- or post-colonial praxis for geography, a work that will continue at this year’s biggest conferences.

In my paper* I consider the label of ‘privileged western researcher’ from a postcolonial and historical perspective. I argue that if “our” (a collective term I seek to pick apart) positionality is historically contingent with colonial-era relations, then the attendant colonial histories within that might be (re)considered through their, following the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, heterogeneity. More specifically, I seek to bring the politics of class to disrupt the assumption of equivalence between Britishness (or western-ness) and unvariegated privilege.

To this end I turn to positionality as relational and personal and consider my own relationship with Empire, making what I consider an important point: ‘I’m a working class boy from the Industrial North of England, my parents’ parents … did not study at any of our great public schools or prestigious universities … my forebears did not order the passage of knowledge from Africa and the Orient to Kensington Gore and Oxbridge’. The argument I make therefore is that colonial-era relations across space were and are multivalent and histories of domination cannot draw so clearly the contours of researcher privilege in postcolonial settings.

From here I propose an empirical potential for more a more ethical praxis in the field, making the argument that in the business of talking about the unfairness of unequal opportunities, of assigned societal positions and trajectories, to know what it is to be sometimes outside, a working-class background (finally) becomes an academic resource that may just make solidarity with less-privileged Others come that bit more readily. In the article I give a brief example of how I believe this played out in fieldwork in India.

What this brings to these turbulent times is something of nuance to the idea that western geographers always already carry with them the histories of colonial exploration and expansion; just as gender and race can give the lie to this assumption, so can class. I look forward to discussing this further at the RGS-IBG Conference this coming August. As for what this might mean in the context of the ongoing debate around the AAG and travelling to the US, if little else a painstaking process of (communal) introspection might help us better negotiate the dissonant positions of critic and beneficiary of empire and its spoils.

* Mark’s paper inaugurates Area‘s new regular feature, ‘Ethics in/of geographical research’. The Area Editors welcome submissions from across the geographical community that consider diverse, contemporary concerns that fall under the broad remit of ethics.

About the author: Mark Griffiths is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. His research is split between two sites: in Palestine he focuses on the political affects of the occupation in West Bank, tracking the embodied aspects of Palestinian activism and resistance. In India his work has focused on NGO and volunteer work on livelihood and sanitation projects in both urban and rural areas.

60-world2 AAG Council 2017 AAG Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/ 

books_icon Chakrabarty D 2007 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference  Princeton University Press

60-world2 Fenton S 2017 Theresa May ‘very happy’ to host Donald Trump on state visit, despite petition reaching 1m signatures The Independent 30 January 2017 

books_icon Griffiths M 2017 From heterogeneous worlds: western privilege, class and positionality in the South. Area, 49: 2–8. doi:10.1111/area.12277 (free to access)

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective Feminist Studies 14, 575-99

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics Progress in Human Geography 21, 305-320

books_icon Said E 1984 Permission to Narrate Journal of Palestine Studies 13, 27-48

books_icon Spivak G C 1999 A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present Harvard University Press

One thought on “Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

  1. Pingback: Check out Mark Griffiths’ latest work! | Sociology at Northumbria University

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