Tag Archives: Ascription

Postcolonialism, Responsibility, and ‘The Other’

By Benjamin Sacks

‘Responsibility is increasingly summoned as a route to living ethically in a postcolonial world’ (p. 418). So begins Pat Noxolo’s (University of Sheffield), Parvati Raghuram’s (Open University), and Clare Madge’s (University of Leicester) astute and occasionally scathing discussion of the current state of responsibility to and within developing countries. Published in the July 2012 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions’ unravels traditional conceptualisations of responsibility and agency, at once highlighting recent, significant scholarship in the field and discussing possible new approaches to empowering peoples in developing countries.

Postcolonialism is often understood as a linear ‘give-and-take’; an attempt to rebalance wealth, resources, and power from highly developed, imperial states and their former colonies. But this singular approach is problematic at best. Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, for instance, both geographers at the University of Glasgow, admitted in a jointly-authored 2007 Geographical Journal article that they remained deeply divided over why postcolonial development had failed. Briggs, ensconced in development studies, pointed to ground level problems in developing states. Sharp, conversely, attacked the ‘dominating universalizing discourse of the West, and particularly the extent to which it suggests that it alone has the answer to development problems’ (p. 6). Their disagreement underscored the fundamental problem with the pervading model: the West empowered ‘The Other’ as and when it saw fit; the developing, or ‘Third World’, as victims, took whatever the West could offer.

‘Unsettling Responsibility’ seeks to alter this approach. The authors cite Doreen Massey’s (2004) and Matthew Sparke’s (2007) criticisms as catalysts for a new, multilinear system where ‘responsibility’ and ‘agency’ – both contested terms – are identified in developed and developing countries, supported, and adjusted accordingly (pp. 418-20). Responsibility is neither solely in the hands of the West nor in those of the developing world. Instead, responsibility and accountability operate on international, national, and local tiers, between developed and developing constituencies, various economic and social sectors, via contradictory legal structures, ‘ethical and moral economies’, and certainly through differing academic and administrative systems. Highlighting such factors, of course, complicates postcolonial discourse. In so doing, however, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge establish a potent framework that is applicable in a comprehensive range of situations, from Africa to Asia and the Caribbean.

Postcolonialism is an ironic term, for it implies that society has moved beyond colonial attitudes and aspirations, and is actively pursuing equality amongst countries’ standard of living. The number of Western-led interventions since the Second World War suggests otherwise. Further, ‘theories of responsibility’ utilised at ‘a high level of abstraction’ have only muddied geopolitical and anthropological analysis (p. 420). The authors recall G C Spivak’s Other Asias (2008) tenet that globalisation’s interconnectivity has created a plethora of ‘hugely uneven global relationships’ between the Global North and Global South. But importantly, responsibility and agency do not rest entirely with one side or the other: these relationships, however lopsided they may be, are the result of actors’ behaviour and decisions in both developed and developing states. In order to better analyse individual relationships of responsibility and dependency, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge contend that the language and processes surrounding ascription and agency must change, and that support should be provided where needed across the entire postcolonial relationship.

Pat Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, and Clare Madge, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume¬†37, Issue 3, pages 418-429, July 2012

Joanne Sharp and John Briggs, ‘Postcolonialism and Development: New Dialogues?The Geographical Journal, Volume 172, Issue 1, pages 6-9, March 2006

Approaching Responsibility in Postcolonialism

Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2000, British forces successfully intervened in their former colony to end a bloody civil war. (c) 2011 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

Long before decolonisation wound down in the late 1980s (the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia excepted), scholars had established ‘postcolonialism’ as an important academic field. Postcolonialism was guided by important questions in a rapidly changing global environment: should postcolonial states align themselves with their former colonisers, e.g., through formal networks as the Commonwealth of Nations and informal, commercial and social relationships. Postcolonialism’s supporters argued that it was vital to monitor newly-independent states and to identify deficiencies and abuses wrought by the colonial power. Detractors, on the other hand, stressed the limitations in colonial responsibility and multi-way cultural exchange, often citing such relatively successful post-independence relationships as the United Kingdom and India. Over fifty years since the first great decolonisation wave, the issue of responsibility and postcolonial relationships remains controversial.

In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Pat Noxolo (University of Sheffield), Parvati Raghuram (The Open University), and Clare Madge (University of Leicester) added an important new addition to this extant debate. In ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions’, the authors tackled the complex web of ethics, responsibility, agency, and strategy that haunt postcolonial relationships. Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge highlighted responsibility’s limitations, particularly after so many years of independence. Most importantly, however, they sought a paradigm shift: to remove vertical, bilateral responsibility and postcolonial relationships in favour of complicated, group-by-group constructions and analyses. ‘In practice’, they noted, ‘responsibility is messy’ (p. 2).

In seeking this paradigm shift, the authors ground their work in theoretical geography. Ascription-the quality that responsibility is put into practice, and agency-the ‘locomotion’ or motivation behind behaviour, action, and reaction. Traditionally, scholars used these functions to support their postcolonial perspectives (pp. 5-7). While acknowledging the benefits of analysing ascription and agency, Noxolo, Raghuram, and Madge stressed their limitations. Instead, they stressed the need to approach each analysis uniquely, to learn and apply narratives and practices from multiple colonial and postcolonial actors so as to avoid the all-too-easy victim/victimiser syndrome. “Giving an answer can lead to vulnerability, to violation or to political manipulation” of some subjects, whereas asking others (in differing situations) may be fine. Thus, postcolonial studies is inherently risky, tainted with emotional discourse and defensiveness on both sides, and should be approached with due caution and awareness for actors outside the traditional ‘top-down’ model. Colonialism and its effects were webs of collusion, power, need, victors and victims, not merely directives from the top.

Pat Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, and Clare Madge, ‘Unsettling Responsibility: Postcolonial Interventions‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series (October, 2011) [Early Online View].