colonizing knowledges linda tuhiwai-smith

In chapter 3, Tuhiwai Smith[2] discusses the positional superiority of Western Knowledge. What does she mean by “positional superiority”? Positional superiority of the West and Western Knowledge means that the ideas of the West and how those ideas were/are created (via western positivistic scientific methods) are superior to other ideas, namely those of indigenous people. In chapter 3, Tuhiwai Smith articulates how the West came to have dominance over other ways of knowing the world. She discusses how the West reinforced its dominance via imperial methodologies such as colonial education. In this chapter, Tuhiwai Smith’s primary point is that the West’s promotion and establishment of its cultural superiority over other cultures was done at the expense of native peoples. While she specifically speaks about the damage done to the Maori people by Western colonizers (often referred to as “explorers” in western historical accounts – see Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle as an example of this kind of “historic exploration” documentation), her discussion of colonizing knowledges can be applied to indigenous and marginalized communities outside New Zealand.

It is important to consider Tuhiwai Smith’s conception of colonizing knowledges in the context of CBPR. While CBPR seeks to undermine and reform processes of imperialist knowledge creation, it is also situated within the University (aka The Academy), an institution that was founded on the western scientific paradigm and its dominance over other (often perceived as “lesser”) ways of understanding the world. This is why developing an awareness of the power dynamics you, as the CBPR practitioner, bring with you to the community is so critical (the Foucault reading will give you a framework for thinking about power).

Part of the work of CBPR is being able to reflect on how the western scientific paradigm’s dominance has impacted communities, such as indigenous communities, impoverished rural communities, and underserved urban communities, by excluding them from the paradigm’s sphere and perceiving these communities as positionally inferior.

In Chapter 3, Tuhiwai Smith describes how the positional superiority of western knowledge began with the emergence of the European modern state, the industrial revolution, and the idea of “liberalism” - that is: the individual has the capacity to reason, the society should promote individual autonomy, and the state should regulate the public sphere via the rational rule of law. Liberalism, or the belief that all men have the capacity for reason and rational thought and that the debate of ideas in a reasoned, rational way will lead to a more enlightened society formed the basis of scientific thought and process during the modern era. Liberalism was the foundation of positivistic approaches to knowledge creation.

The Enlightenment and the industrial revolution brought about exploration, trade, and the establishment of western colonies in new, uncharted parts of the world. The West claimed these “discoveries” as “new” even though this knowledge was appropriated from already developed and long-existing communities and cultures (like the Maori). The West had never known these people, places, and things before, and therefore, in the West’s eyes these people, places, and things were new and required naming, classification, and categorization. The geography, botany, and biology of these newly found places were used to support the western superiority of knowledge generation (and ownership). That is, the western methods of observation, measurement and counting, and documentation and classification, were the best ways of understanding and controlling the world (these are also aspects of positivistic approaches to knowledge generation).

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Tuhiwai Smith takes issue with the western scientific paradigm as the primary source of understanding and knowledge. The Maori people had ways of understanding and being in the world that worked for them for a long time before European colonizers arrived on the scene. The knowledge Tuhiwai Smith describes in her book is specific to the Maori people. However, within a CBPR framework, such knowledge is considered “local knowledge”. We will learn more about local knowledge in Module 3 when we read Jason Coburn’s work but seeking out and valuing local knowledge is a critical aspect of CBPR work. Privileging local knowledge over scientific knowledge is also an important part of shifting the western research paradigm to include (and value) different ways of knowing and understanding the world. (The idea that there are multiple ways of knowing something and local knowledge contributes to understanding an issue is an aspect of the hermeneutic approach to science.)

The West employed the colonizing research paradigm established during the Enlightenment Era and industrial revolution as an instrument of power, domination, and control. Research on these “new discoveries” was used to legitimize imperialist practices that were deleterious to indigenous communities. In the western paradigm, indigenous human beings were categorized as: nearly human, almost human, and sub-human depending on whether they had a soul, could be saved, and were worthy of education as determined by European colonizers.[2] Indeed, colonial education was a primary vehicle for ensuring the West’s positional superiority in knowledge, language, and culture over indigenous people. The role of colonial education was to achieve cultural assimilation of indigenous people. This education was provided under religious or public systems and it was commonly brutal and abusive.

In the case study for this module, “Canada’s First Peoples’ Tragedy with European Boarding School”, we hear about the long-lasting impact on the victims of this abuse in the name of Western civilization and cultural assimilation. Students were taken from their families and denied the right to learn their native language and culture. Certain students, those considered “uneducable” – read: sub-human or soulless, were denied any education at all. However, other students, those deemed most “nearly human” were given access to better quality, higher levels of education (within a Western European Context) and therein, formed elitist indigenous groups that further reinforced colonial structures, values, and ideologies.

This history, which also happened to Native Americans, left deeply embedded scars that persist in native communities today. While communities are healing (as Tuhiwai Smith discusses in later chapters of her book), many still carry the historical trauma of the West’s imperialist ideologies and methods. The concept of historical trauma (see our text, chapter 5) suggests that the past trauma from colonizing processes, like imperialist education, persists today in native peoples and contributes to poor physical and mental health outcomes. Therefore, as CBPR practitioners, it is important to be aware of the traumatic histories of many indigenous and underserved communities and consider these histories as potential risks to a community’s health and well-being.

You also must be willing to talk about historical trauma with community members and develop sensitivities to the pain caused by and distrust of Western research approaches (of which CBPR is one) that many indigenous and underserved communities have. Additionally, if you are a person of privilege (especially one of European ancestry) you must be willing to absorb some hard truths about what was done to communities in the name of Western colonization. You must also be aware that for many indigenous and marginalized communities, YOU as a privileged person signify imperialism. This can be painful and it is another reason why the skill of self-reflexivity or self-reflection in your CBPR practice is so vital. Self-reflection can help you process painful conversations with communities and transform both past and present pain into powerful social change. (More on self-reflexivity in the Freire lecture.)

Colonizing the Disciplines

In the final sections of chapter 3, Tuhiwai Smith discusses “academic knowledges” as a group of disciplines and fields of knowledge that are organized around the idea that “science” is the primary (and superior) way of understanding the world. By science, Tuhiwai Smith means empiricism, a positivistic approach to knowledge creation that is founded on the idea of gathering knowledge via a distanced, observational stance, precise measurement and instrumentation, and hypothesis testing. For Tuhiwai Smith, empiricism and the scientific method have its roots in colonization and the exploration and exploitation of the “new world” and the people who lived in those worlds long before they were considered “new” by the West. Within academic knowledge there is no space for other ways of understanding how the world works outside of those prescribed by the Academy (aka the University). This means that indigenous ways of knowing the world are inferior to those articulated and owned by the western academic paradigm. Within the western research and academic paradigms, indigenous people are “the Other”, the lesser group that is brought into line via colonizing disciplines, like education, and improved upon via colonizing structures, like government bureaucracy (think: child welfare and public health systems).

According to Tuhiwai Smith, academic knowledge has been protected from scrutiny because it established the power and influence of the scientific method as the foundational way of knowing in almost every aspect of our society and, therefore, academic knowledge does not have to be called into question. The Academy insulated itself from the outside world. In the “search for truth”, academic researchers claim the privileged position of independence from the outside world because they are developing knowledge that is bias and value free. This distanced stance enables them to claim that their findings stand on their own as proof. This distance also absolves them of any responsibility of the implications of their findings and their proofs. To comment on the implications of their findings would be to introduce the “bias” of their opinions and therein contaminate the research with personal opinion. Therefore, researchers (in the western research paradigm) don’t have to contribute to discussions about the larger implications and societal impact of their research. An example of this kind of distanced knowledge creation is from the Module 2 readings in Steve Wing’s chapter on alternative epidemiology.[3] In this reading, Wing described some epidemiologists as unwilling to interpret the impact of their findings in the larger context of the real world, even though their findings directly impacted public health.

Colonialism and Native Intellectuals

Finally, Tuhiwai Smith talks about the challenges of indigenous scholars who have insider/outsider status. That is, they may have been educated in the West and achieved success by Western definitions but within Western circles they are not always taken seriously as academics because of their indigenous status. By Western standards, they will never be fully “in” and are often perceived as token representations of their culture. On the other hand, their home community and its members often view them as sell-outs; individuals who assimilated to western ways for their own personal gain. Yet, these individuals are often called on to assist the community when there is a problem.

Indigenous, ‘post-colonial’ academics are skilled in moving across multiple boundaries and contexts. They are strategic in how they position themselves in the academy, their communities, and the larger Western world. Still they struggle with being taken seriously, particularly within the Academy. Many native intellectuals are committed to challenging and changing the entrenched colonial, positivistic mindset of the Academy, despite the difficulty in doing so. To quote, Spivak (p. 71): “…if one begins to take a whack at shaking the structure up, one sees how much more consolidated the opposition is.”[2]

We can think of CBPR as one way of taking “a whack at shaking the structure up”. CBPR seeks to challenge the western academic and research paradigms by calling into question who creates and owns knowledge. As we continue in our readings and the course, we will see that “shaking the structure up” is not easy but it certainly is worthwhile, particularly for the communities we as public health professionals are seeking to serve.

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