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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


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Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #005 – Hajir, Kurian & McInerney

By ztnvcnu, on 8 February 2021

Decolonial work: Moving Beyond Simplistic Approaches to ‘alternative knowledges’

by Basma Hajir, Nomisha Kurian and William McInerney, University of Cambridge

The pervasive, systemic, and fortified configurations of coloniality within contemporary education contexts necessitates that decolonial resistance remains a deeply challenging practice. As a result, we believe it is important to acknowledge and unpack the many ways engaging in decolonization work can be complex, nuanced, and possibly even counterproductive if done uncritically. Specifically, we are concerned about the ways some decolonial work engages in overly-simplistic approaches to ‘alternative knowledges’ in resistance to colonized curricula and pedagogy. We fear uncritical work here, even that which is well-intentioned, can produce a dangerous context for binary thinking and cultural essentialism that might ultimately reinforce colonialism in education rather than deconstruct it. To unpack this challenge, we discuss three problematic aspects that we see emanating from uncritical glorification of alternative knowledges. 

Uncritical Glorification: Erasure, Relativism, and Difference  

First, uncritical glorification of alternative knowledges can unintentionally contribute to erasing history. For example, prompted by a desire to unpack western domination in education, to remain attentive to the limitations of grand narratives, and to point out what has been silenced, some postcolonial and decolonial scholars engage in critiquing the pre-eminence of what they refer to as ‘western metaphysics’, ‘western modernity’ or ‘western rationality’. We applaud their efforts and we wholeheartedly agree with the premise of their pursuit. Ultimately, interrogating western domination as a symptom of the alliance between power and knowledge is the core of decolonial work. 

However, we believe that these critiques are sometimes framed in a way that renders them prone to ignoring the complexity of history and culture. For example, by monolithically ascribing reason, rationality, and science to Western epistemology and assigning emotion, art, and spirituality to Eastern/ Southern way of knowing, they unintentionally bifurcate differences. We find the very notion of ‘Western modernity’ reductionist and problematic because ‘Western modernity’ has been greatly impacted by the intellectual work of many beyond the West including Arabic, Islamic, Chinese, and Indian scientists and philosophers amongst many others. Many intellectual challenges to modernity tacitly accept that certain values are ‘Eurocentric’; however, were values such as ‘science’ and ‘reason’ really limited to Europe in the first place? In her influential work Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imaginationthe sociologist Gurminder Bhambra shows how Europe was not even a coherent or unified entity when the Enlightenment took place (Bhambra, 2007). Drawing on her concept of ‘connected histories’, we note that knowledge was forged transnationally. For example, much of the ‘modern’ science developed in the Enlightenment was drawn from Islamic scholarship. Indeed, the history of scientific innovation is polyvocal rather than straightforwardly ‘Western’: Charles Darwin’s contributions to modern evolutionary biology were based on South American data and Einstein’s theory of relativity was first tested in Portuguese colonies shaped by the Atlantic slave trade (Connell, 2007). Without acknowledging the cultural cross-pollination that often shapes the genealogies and constellations of knowledges, the superficial attribution of a specific way of knowing to a specific cultural group (eg. ‘Western scientific ways of knowing’) is itself violent, has homogenizing erasing repercussions, and echoes the very colonization we seek to deconstruct. 

Second, uncritical glorification of alternative knowledges can be found in some intellectual work that relies heavily on discourses of relativism. Those who subscribe to strong versions of relativism find that all ways of being and knowing are ‘right’ relative to their cultural-conceptual-moral frameworks. For decolonial work, such a stance can be damaging in multiple ways. Most importantly, by legitimising all that is local and refusing to challenge any of it, they deprive Southern voices from the means to criticise their own cultures. They appear as if they want to save southern cultures from their own scholars and activists and they seem as if they want to retrieve and preserve the ‘authentic natives’. Rey Chow (1993) coined the term ‘Neo-orientalist anxiety’ to express her suspicions of the sincerity of such pursuits. She wonders if longing for the pure East/ South is nothing but an attempt to preserve it lest it become contaminated by the west and accordingly ‘unOtherable’.

Nowhere has the issue of ‘relativism in decolonial work’ been addressed as adequately and meaningfully as in de sousa Santos (2018). Santos distinguishes between acceptable relativism and damaging relativism. He calls for “a pragmatic way of validating knowledge” and invites us to evaluate knowledge “by its consequences rather than by its causes”. He says:

“The work of the epistemologies of the South consists of evaluating the relative reasonableness and adequateness of the different kinds of knowledge in light of the social struggles in which the relevant epistemic community is involved.”

Thus, any knowledge that helps in maximising the chances of success in the struggle is an acceptable and welcome knowledge regardless of whether it is universalist, scientific, local, artisanal, non-scientific etc. On the other hand, any knowledge that might be used against the struggle and/or to silence the oppressed is a rejected form of knowledge irrespective of its cultural origin or meaning. We believe that Santos’s approach of ‘relativism’ must be central to decolonisation discourses that are truly devoted to speaking for the poorly represented and the oppressed. 

A third problematic aspect of uncritical glorification of other ways of being/ knowing is related to how some decolonial work approaches the question of ‘difference’. Aspiring to move away from universalist frameworks that silence difference, decolonial scholars aim for a genuine and respectful engagement with difference. To this end, they underscore bottom-up dynamics, local understanding and local ownership. This type of engagement is greatly valuable and needed. However, by  failing to acknowledge that in some cases  ‘difference presupposes relations of power’, some uncritical forms of this ‘local turn’ maintain a form of stigmatization and essentialization of difference. To avoid this, we argue that an accountable interrogation of the political nuances of ‘difference’ should lie at the heart of decolonial work. Needed is a commitment to unpack the interrelation among some cultural differences, historical processes and global structural inequalities. These do not exist independently. Eventually, the decolonial mission is  profoundly political, and any superficial engagement that separates the epistemic from the political risks achieving adverse results inadvertently.  

As the name of this blog series suggests, decolonial praxis guides us with and through alternative histories. We believe alternative histories require us to extend our thinking into what de sousa Santos (2018) calls the epistemologies of the South – knowledges that emerge as part of the struggles of resistance against oppression and against the knowledge that legitimates such oppression. The work of de sousa Santos makes a strong case for a ‘valorization’ of such epistemologies within the ecology of knowledges. However, as we noted there is a nuanced yet consequential difference between a critical valorisation and an uncritical glorification of the alternatives to dominant colonial praxis. We fear an uncritical glorification is prone to patterns of erasure, relativism, and simplistic accounts of difference that are rife with unintended consequences.

We bring these ideas forward because we believe they are important and relevant to this work. However, we do not seek to single out or disqualify any one certain decolonial praxis or practitioner. Further, we are not pretending to be without faults and blindspots in our own work or to know what a “true decolonial praxis” is (Walsh and Mignolo, 2018). There is no simple answer to the nuanced challenges presented by colonialism in education. In the face of such vital work for justice, we advocate for greater acknowledgment of the complexity of decolonial work, the risks some uncritical discourses may bring forward, and the need for a deeper attention to reflexivity throughout. 

Basma Hajir is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.  She explores the field of Education and Conflict with a particular focus  on the role of higher education for peace-building and post-conflict  recovery in Syria.

Nomisha Kurian is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching the wellbeing of young girls in India in settings of poverty and adversity. Her past work has examined empathy in development
education, children’s rights, peace education and citizenship education.

William McInerney is a doctoral candidate and Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. He researches and teaches conflict transformation, peace education, and men’s violence prevention with a particular focus on arts-integrated gender-transformative education.


Want to publish a blog post in this series? Send a submission or idea to:  Mai Abu Moghli or Charlotte Nussey 

For everything else, please contact: Laila Kadiwal

One Response to “Alternative Histories of Education and International Development #005 – Hajir, Kurian & McInerney”

  • 1
    Brent Adams wrote on 11 March 2021:

    Very insightful essay. You correctly point that there are real dangers if decolonization efforts lapse into binary thought. Within politically tinged debate this is particularly commonplace.

    Up to this point I have not been familiar with de sousa Santos, but will have to learn mora about him. His thoughts regarding “a pragmatic way of validating knowledge” and evaluating knowledge “by its consequences rather than by its causes” should be key considerations in our field.

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