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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #033 – Walker & Martinez-Vargas

By CEID Blogger, on 25 June 2020

Epistemic In/Justice and COVID-19: Mind the Epistemic Gap

By Melanie Walker & Carmen Martinez-Vargas

Unequal power relations are part and parcel of global South scholars’ daily experiences. Their work (our work) is based and maintained under structures that limit their ability to generate and disseminate Southern knowledge(s) globally. Many of these structures have colonial legacies. These limitations on our knowledges – what we call epistemic limitations –  do not stop us from pursuing our academic careers and fighting our marginalisation, which in many cases our counterparts in the global North (continue to) enforce. In times of pandemic, these inequalities are even more relevant and essential to consider. Our higher education institutions and research agendas are shaped by global North budgets allocated mainly in those institutions that perform the best, according to top-down imposed standards rather than standards or criteria that respond to the needs and perspectives in the global South. Hence, when resources are scarce and impacted by global conditions, such as the current pandemic, our institutions in the global South suffer the most from further marginalisation, and us with them.

In a recently published paper, we argued that epistemic governance – that is, the epistemic structures and knowledge paradigms that underlie higher education institutions – matters and needs to be assessed for the extent to which epistemic freedoms are expanded for all and not just for the global North. We tried to expose, especially for those that do not experience epistemic inequalities, how it is to live and work as an academic on the other side of the epistemic line. Our intention is not to hide our privilege as academics in a country such as South Africa, but rather to bring light to inequalities and power imbalances globally in knowledge generation and agendas that are run outside Africa, and only notionally and instrumentally with Africa.

When we refer to epistemic freedoms, we understand these as the real freedoms scholars in the South have to become worthy knowers and equal contributors to epistemic material in the global academic system. By this, we mean the real opportunities we have to flourish as academics and fairly develop research agendas that matter in the context where we live and work. This is to pay careful attention as researchers to our research practices and actions and how we contribute to more or less epistemically just societies. Hence, expressing oneself, and contributing to meaning-making through research are constitutive and basic capabilities that we need to protect and enhance for all.

However, we know expressing oneself is not easy when colonial epistemic structures are in place. For instance, education research from Africa is generally published only in local journals or labelled ‘comparative’ education. Unfair research collaborations are also the norm and not the exception. Frequently African scientists’ role is limited only to providing samples and conducting fieldwork, with legitimate and legitimated theory being produced in the global North. Equally, however, Northern researchers are not self-sufficient: they need data, samples, skills, experiences and expertise from Southern partners. Hence, how do we talk about and practise equality and respect in research collaborations?

This question is further complicated by the allocation of donor funds for research projects and who decides for which projects to fund. For instance, ignoring racism in global North research priorities while also marginalising the priorities of many in the South. Structures of race are especially relevant after the current anti-racism global protests following the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African communities. We have long experienced silence about conditions of racism. What is clear is who gets asked about which issues, who decides on research questions, and which issues and questions are erased reflects our epistemically unequal societies built on colonial, racial, and patriarchal structures.

Epistemic injustices have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Our university budgets have been severely impacted and re-oriented to overcome what the new situation has brought as urgent challenges. Equally, many opportunities that were already scarce for the South are now not there at all, or becoming minimal such as funding, infrastructure (e.g., internet connection) to develop adequately our research work or possibilities to engage in equal conditions with peers in the North. What we propose is a collaborative and serious effort from all of us in the North and South to understand our contextualised, marginal conditions. Here, we are not talking about epistemic charity or false generosity. What we ask for, is for genuine epistemic agents that can understand the positionalities of others in the South and join us to overcome the barriers that we have on the way to become fair contributors to our global knowledge systems. We must listen to our decolonial interpretative tools, what Goetze calls ‘epistemic humility.’ These tools highlight the need to admit the gaps in one’s own interpretive frameworks, primarily referring to those that experienced epistemic marginalisation. This does not require us to become uncritical regarding any positionality but rather understand that dissenting interpretations are coming from agents situated in different contexts and therefore, reflect one’s own experiences of marginalisation.

What matters during this pandemic, more than before, is not only our own epistemic freedoms but those of others.  We need to ask ourselves questions beyond our personal and professional research ambitions: Which projects started during the pandemic expand epistemic (and other) freedoms for all and not just for the global North? Which epistemic communities and/or organisations get to decide which research project to pursue, when and how during the pandemic? Who will get to decide which post COVID-19 projects are funded and which are not in the global South? By understanding and acting on such questions together, we may not become a perfectly epistemically just society, but we will undoubtedly push towards a more epistemically sensitive and humble global community able to mind the epistemic gap in post COVID-19 times.

Melanie Walker is South African research chair in Higher Education and Human Development at the University of the Free State (South Africa), and Carmen Martinez Vargas is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Higher Education and Human Development Research Group.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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