Teaching Decolonizing Methodologies

This essay first appeared on the website Savage Minds.

For about a decade I have been teaching a graduate seminar in anthropology at Columbia University called “Decolonizing Methodology” which takes Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples as its starting point and also draws on other key texts focused on research methodologies specifically (Denzin et. al. 2008; Kovach 2010). In the course we tend to start with Smith’s work and then use her careful analysis to guide us in taking apart the various traditional methodologies that anthropologists tend to rely on in their research and the various theoretical frames that are of-the-moment within the field. This means that the course moves back and forth between “decolonizing methodology” and “decolonizing theory”.

I started teaching the course after my colleague and friend Jamon Halvaksz pointed out that in my first book I failed to engage enough work by scholars from Papua New Guinea, (PNG) where I have worked since 1997, and the broader Pacific region. Halvaksz’s critique helped me to see the colonial nature of my own anthropological practice in terms of the theoretical texts I drew on to make my arguments and produce new knowledge. From that, I also began thinking about how to teach “methods” in a way that fit with Smith’s work and my own experience of doing ethnographic research with communities in PNG that forced me, from the first day of my research, to think about the politics of asking questions, white privilege, the historic role of anthropology in the mis-representation of Papua New Guineans, and what happens when a scholar learns something that she can never write about. Since my research has always focused on engagements between Papua New Guineans and others (scientists, business people, missionaries, tourists) my colleagues and friends from PNG have always pushed me to think carefully about what these outsiders (myself included) take from PNG, give back to PNG, and how they produce PNG through their rhetoric and practice.

I am a white middle class straight cis-gendered woman from a very poor working class background who is the descendant of settlers who illegally and immorally stole land owned by people of the Coosa Chiefdom who is a full tenured professor at a university that is located on land owned by Lenape people. The students tend to be first and second year Ph.D. students (and a few MA students) who come from a range of departments, with the fields of anthropology, urban planning, history, and sociology almost always represented[i]. In the course, in terms of methods, we always focus on ‘participant observation,’ ‘interviews,’ ‘mapping’, ‘oral history’, and various visual projects like ‘filmmaking’ and ‘photography’ since these are generally the methods that the students in the course imagine that they will use during their doctorial field research. In terms of “theory” over the years we have take on “the production of space,” “ontology”, and “bare life”, among others. In the methods part of the course we tend to take a traditional text describing how to do a method and a traditional ethnographic text written from evidence gathered with that method and ‘read’ them through Smith’s arguments about the kinds of colonial artifacts (dispossession, occlusion, erasure, violence) that are smuggled into traditional social-science epistemic practices. Through this process we get to what should really be the beginning, but rarely is with students who are expected to “have a project” when they apply to Ph.D. programs, where the students start to ask themselves about, in Kim TallBear’s phrasing, “the ethics of accountability in research (whose lives, lands, and bodies are inquired into and what do they get out of it?)” (TallBear 2014:1) and how the methods that they have been imagining may not allow them to approach accountability in ways that they find ethical. The students thus begin to think about the binary that has underpinned most of their research-thinking to date. Again, following TallBear, they begin to see, “the binary between researcher and researched—between knowing inquirer and who or what are considered to be the resources or grounds for knowledge production” (TallBear 2014:1) and they begin to understand that truly decolonial work tries to do away with this binary in various ways.

In the theory part of the course we take the most canonical text for any given social-scientific body of thought, read it, and then read it through texts about the same topic written by non-Euro-American-Australian scholars. For example for “space” we might read Henri Lefebvre’s The production of Space (Lefebvre 1991) paired with work by Okusitino Mãhina, a Tongan philosopher of time-space articulations (Mãhina 1992, 1993, 2002, 2010). In the best of worlds what happens next is a similar self-awaking where the students realize that most of the conceptual frames they are using to think with about their proposed projects come not from in situ relations, conversations, ontological propositions, epistemic processes, or exchanges about what needs to be known and what can’t be known, but rather from their own intellectual genealogy and what texts, arguments, and faculty compelled them during their course work or even their undergraduate training.

We then work together, as a group, in pairs, and with multiple meeting between me and each of the students, to re-think their projects, the ethics of accountability involved in them, and how they will proceed in crafting literature reviews that expand their field of epistemic possibilities. It is a great deal of pedagogical labor on my part and a great deal of intellectual labor on their part. Perhaps more importantly however, it involves a fairly serious commitment to letting go on the part of the students and a willingness to craft a new project idea for their preliminary research (remember that most of the students are first and second year students so they have some time before they actually have to do their dissertation research), that puts the ethics of engagement front and center, and allows for a methodology to emerge in co-production with the communities with which they wish to work.

I’ve also taught a version of this course twice in Papua New Guinea. There, I taught the course on a volunteer basis through The Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research (PNG IBR) an NGO that I co-founded in the early 2000s with colleagues from PNG and the United States. One of our founding principals is the proposition that the conservation of biological diversity in PNG can only be achieved if Papua New Guineans have full sovereignty over that biological diversity and that that sovereignty has been slowly stripped away by outsiders conducting research and conservation in the country. In PNG the course was made up of people working as researchers for both governmental and non-governmental organizations, people working as researchers for various extractive industries, people working for national cultural institutions, and faculty from various national universities. There we took the specific methodologies that we have all seen used in an endless barrage of social research components of assessments and used Smith’s work to help us re-craft them in ways that make sense for research with communities in PNG.

PWest image

Image: Author with participants of the decolonizing methodology course in PNG (2015).

Teaching the course in the contexts of the US and PNG is always quite different. At Columbia the course is about the individual students, their projects, and the project of moving them through the graduate system so that they emerge as scholars who, for the most part, will become university professors. In PNG the course feels more like a shared project. One in which we are all committed to the same goal (decolonizing epistemic practice as it connects to PNG) and where we are able to connect with non scholars who are equally interested in epistemic practice. For example, in one version of the course the students presented their final projects to a group of elders from the communities surrounding the town where we met. These elders were indigenous, expatriate, and other and the students and I all learned from their critiques of our work.

I think of all of this teaching as a collective, on-going, project where my scholarly practice, I hope, becomes less colonial every time I teach the course. I’ve outlined the course here not because I think it is perfect or even that everyone should teach it, but rather because I think it has helped me and my students to do better, more decolonial anthropology.


Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln and Linda Tuhiwai Smith 2008. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Sage Books.

Kovach, Margaret. 2010. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts. University of Toronto Press.

Lefebvre, Henri 1991. The production of space. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Mãhina, ‘Okusitino 1992. The Tongan Traditional Tala-e-fonua: A Vernacular Ecology-centered Historico-Cultural Concept. Unpublished PhD Thesis. ANU, Canberra.

Mãhina, Okusitino,  1993 The poetics of Tongan traditional history, tala–fonua: An ecology-centred concept of culture and history. Journal of Pacific History 28:109–21.

Mãhina, Okusitino, 2002 Atamai, fakakaukau and vale: Mind, thinking and mental illness in Tonga. Pac-Health-Dialog 9 (2): 303–08.

Mãhina, ‘Okusitino. 2010. Ta, Va, and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: Zed Books.

TallBear, Kim. 2014. “Standing With and Speaking as Faith: A Feminist-Indigenous Approach to Inquiry [Research note].” Journal of Research Practice, 10(2), 2014.

About paigewest

Paige West, the Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, joined the faculty in 2001, the year after earning her Ph.D. in cultural and environmental anthropology. Dr. West’s general research interest is the relationship between society and the environment. More specifically, she has written about the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Germany, England, and the United States.
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Paige West, Anthropology

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