Tag Archives: postcolonialism

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

Spatial exclusivity and anxiety: on and beyond our planet

by Tijo Salverda and Iain Hay

A view on Tamarin, a seaside village with a substantial portion of Franco-Mauritian inhabitants. Photograph by Tijo Salverda.

A view on Tamarin, a seaside village with a substantial portion of Franco-Mauritian inhabitants. Photograph by Tijo Salverda.

Mauritius may not the first thing that comes to mind when watching Elysium, a 2013 Hollywood sci-fi movie. However, in our understandings of elite geographies the film makes an interesting allegory for the Indian Ocean island known for its pristine beaches.

In the film, the wealthy have abandoned planet Earth and settled down on Elysium, an exclusive and luxurious space habitat. Elite symbolism is displayed nicely: Elysium appears as a large, shiny piece of jewellery, with its inhabitants living in luxurious villas and (some) speaking the ‘ultimate’ elite language, French! Evocative of contemporary exclusive elite gated communities, the residents of Elysium are surrounded with likeminded people and shielded from unwanted visitors and residents, notably the have-nots who are forced to remain on an overpopulated and chaotic Earth. In short, the wealthy have shaped a perfect elite life, yet they remain anxious to prevent the Earth’s poor inhabitants entering their exclusive space.

As with many allegories, some of the similarities to Mauritius may be a little farfetched. Nevertheless, the comparison highlights a matter that tends to be overlooked in much of the literature on elite geographies. In our article ‘Change, anxiety and exclusion in the postcolonial reconfiguration of Franco-Mauritian elite geographies’ in The Geographical Journal we make the point that the role of anxiety in shaping elite geographies is not something that exists only in the fantasies of Hollywood producers. In the (re)shaping of their elite geographies, Franco-Mauritians – the white former colonial elite of the island of Mauritius – are to a large extent driven by worries about others entering their exclusive spaces: their residential areas, their schools, and their clubs. Most of the newly emerging literature examining geographies of the super-rich and elites overlooks this matter of anxiety, focusing instead on how elites and the super-rich tend to have the upper hand in shaping residential and other social geographies. The Franco-Mauritian case, especially in the period since Mauritius’ independence, helps to illustrate how elite geographies are also shaped in response to external changes. Feelings of anxiety and consequential desires to regain some measure of control over their milieux have influenced Franco-Mauritians’ shaping of exclusive cultural, educational, recreational, and residential enclaves in ways that create new patterns of exclusion and segregation. As we illustrate, such enclaves on Earth – and perhaps even in Elysium-like futures beyond our planet – are simultaneously and paradoxically a root of anxiety and the foundation of continued exclusivity.

About the authors: Tijo Salverda is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Human Economy Programme, Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria, South Africa; Iain Hay is Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Human Geography at the School of the Environment, Flinders University, Australia.

books_icon Salverda T and Hay I 2013 Change, anxiety and exclusion in the post-colonial reconfiguration of Franco-Mauritian elite geographies The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geoj.12041

globe42Mohn T 2012 America’s Most Exclusive Gated Communities Forbes 3 July

60-world2Elysium official movie site 2013

The battle for the Chagos Islands: who counts?

Salomon Atoll in the Chagos islands
Image credit: Anne Sheppard

By Helen Pallett

In June this year the High Court ruled that the UK government’s decision to create a marine park around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean had been lawful. This marked the end of a three year long struggle for the indigenous Chagossian islanders, who had argued that the 2010 designation of the archipelago as a protected marine reserve robbed them of their fishing-centred livelihoods and effectively prevented them from ever returning to their ancestral lands. At 545,000 square miles, the Chagos marine park is the largest in the world, claiming to protect an area as rich in biodiversity as the Galapagos Islands. In the absence of any further barriers to its designation, the new reserve will now be expected to live up to its promise of slowing the rate of regional biodiversity loss in the Indian Ocean and replenishing its fish stocks.

The media coverage of this legal struggle has shed light on the continuing influence of the archipelago’s colonial history on its present fate and that of its islanders. In 1965 the British expelled the Chagossians in order to allow the Americans to build an airbase on the main island, Diego Garcia, and also deterritorializing the islands from the Mauritian state. This act prompted an extensive legal battle for the Chagossians to try to secure their right to return, with challenges in the British and international courts both from the islanders themselves and the government of Mauritius. The recent decision to create the marine park has been interpreted as a continuation of the British colonial claim to the islands (which are still designated as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory), with the clear intent of preventing the return of the Chagossians to the archipelago and to their previous way of life.

There are strong parallels between the story of the Chagos islands and the account offered by Emma Norman in a recent article in Area on the governance of the activities of indigenous fishing communities in Boundary Bay, North America. Norman describes a process of what she calls ‘ecocolonisation’, whereby indigenous communities suffer the consequences of the seizure and degradation of their lands by an outside force. She sees this ecocolonisation as occurring in three main ways, all of which also resonate with the story of the Chagossians. Her first mode of ecocolonisation is through the containing of land and sea into different political regimes. In Norman’s account this is exemplified by how differently the activities of indigenous communities on the Canadian side of Boundary Bay have been governed, compared to those living the south of the bay which is governed by United States. Similarly, the territorialization of the Chagos Islands as a British Indian Ocean Territory and relatedly as a US military base has had direct and devastating effects on the landscape and people’s of the Islands, by designating who had rights to make decisions about the appropriate uses of land and sea. These territorial boundaries has been actively contested through the legal battles of the Chagossians and the government of Mauritius. The second form of ecocolonisation which Norman describes is the effects of pollution inputs which come from outside of the territory. Again, such debates are clearly alive around the creation of the Chagos marine park, as the degradation of this environment has been described as a problem of broader pollution and overfishing throughout the Indian Ocean.

The most central element of Emma Norman’s account of Boundary Bay, is the third mode of ecocolonisation that she describes; a process she feels has been left out of many accounts of the governance of indigenous communities, and something which helps us to understand the more subtle negotiations and practices which are at play, beyond the narrative of colonial greed. This process is what Norman calls the politics of calculation. A focus on the politics of calculation forces us not only to think about who counts in the sense of whose perspectives are sought and whose welfare is valued, but also to think literally about who is doing the counting in these processes. Norman argues that the technologies and methods with which governments and administrative bodies measure pollution, assess biodiversity and designate certain territories and species as threatened, all carry with them certain kinds of rationalities which themselves have political effects. In this case the technologies and rationalities used by the British government and by conservation bodies such as the IUCN, designating the Chagos islands as in need of environmental protection, are very different rationalities from those which govern the (relatively low impact) activities of the Chagossians themselves. Norman would argue that the political effects of these instruments are central to understanding the story of the Chagossians and how the British high court was able to justify its decision to uphold the creation of this marine park. This politics of calculation is what sets the Chagos Archipelago apart from the other inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean as an area of rich biodiversity which must be protected. It is also what foists the responsibility for replenishing the Indian Ocean’s fish stocks onto the beleaguered Chagossians and decentres the gaze from the polluting activities of sea-faring industries and the American military.

60-world2 Chagos Islands marine park is compatible with law, high court rules The Guardian

60-world2 Chagos Islands: open secrets The Guardian

60-world2 Britain Faces UN tribunal over Chagos Islands marine reserve The Guardian

60-world2 Chagos marine park is lawful, High Court rules BBC 

books_icon Emma S Norman, 2013, Who’s counting? Spatial politics, ecocolonisation and the politics of calculation in Boundary BayArea 45 179-187

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].

Ladybrille: Bringing Africa to the West

imagesBy Georgia Conover

Reuters recently reported on the launch of the Afro-centric, on-line magazine called Ladybrille (for brilliant lady) as making African fashion and entertainment accessible to women living in the United States and Europe.  The woman’s magazine, published by Ladybrille Media Group, Inc. is dubbed AfriChic, and covers a range of topics from news and business, to music, film and fashion from the African continent.  According to the Reuters story, Ladybrille magazine is being hailed as a way to bring culture from Africa into the mainstream.

The Reuters story is interesting in two parts, first because it features a magazine that challenges western-centric constructions of culture by elevating cultural practices in Africa.  Second, because it acclaims Ladybrille as making African news, fashion and entertainment accessible to the “mainstream,” suggesting that western preferences are the norm, to which African societies are compared and, thanks to a new magazine, made accessible.  The news coverage of this magazine launch de-centers “the West,” at the same time that it reproduces ideas about the West as the cultural norm.

60% world Read the Reuters article online

60% world Read Globalism,Postcolonialism, and African Studies

By Bill Ashcroft (2002), Blackwell Reference Online.