University curricula cannot be decolonised unless research is, too

We need knowledge and content that go beyond the Western world to design a meaningful decolonised, research-led curriculum, says Masi Noor

July 15, 2021
An Asian scientist holding a test tube
Source: iStock

When I attend workshops on decolonising university curricula, I often end up feeling like a party pooper.

It usually begins when I ask some basic questions, such as “how do we convince our current students that this conversation is authentic and will deliver meaningful change?” or “how might we compensate generations of students who have been taught degrees based on colonised curricula?” It doesn’t go down well either when I point out that white academic staff in the UK take home an average of £7,000 extra per year compared with black colleagues.

That’s because these questions unsettle colonialism and disrupt the flow of the main conversation, which tends to focus on how the situation can be addressed at the micro and individual levels.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that these efforts can be valid and important. However, if they become the sole focus of our conversations, then we have a problem. And while I don’t doubt the good intentions of facilitators of these workshops, they often don’t represent people like me, and their opening sentence of “I am here to empower you” brutalises and problematises the very people these workshops aim to liberate.

So let’s not allow these workshops to distract us from the biggest obstacle to decolonising our curricula. The big, white elephant that tramples on all serious efforts to move this agenda forward is our colonised way of doing research, generating knowledge, and then disseminating it (or not).

My own discipline of psychological science is known to exclude roughly 95 per cent of the world’s population from its purview because studies focus largely on the less than 10 per cent of people living in the US and other Western countries. Not only does such exclusion raise questions about the relative privilege of those who can conduct psychological research and those who can be studied, it also highlights the key problem with current discussions about decolonising university curricula: we need knowledge and content that go beyond the Western world in order to design a meaningful decolonised and research-led curriculum – at least in psychology.

With this in mind, it was a refreshing experience last month when I had the opportunity to join other international colleagues for a virtual meeting to discuss barriers to decolonising research. These barriers are rooted in systemic biases, ranging from funders’ preferences for certain research priorities to the practice of communicating scientific knowledge mainly in English.

The meeting, which was organised and co-funded by Princeton University, the American Psychological Association and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, also gave consideration to how publishers’ paywalls obstruct access to research for scholars in low- to middle-income countries. Non-Western scholars may be further disadvantaged by reviewers’ and journal editors’ application of biased criteria to evaluate the quality of their research.

Despite much enthusiasm and hunger for change, a sombre mood could also be observed among many delegates. We were mindful that this was not the first time academia had talked about making changes; we often focus on incremental advances, but their slow pace frustrates those of us who continue to be marginalised. A number of us feared that in 10 or 20 years’ time we might still be having a very similar conversation and deploring the lack of systemic change. In some of the faces, you could almost see the novelist James Baldwin’s appalled expression from when he asked several decades ago: “How much time do you want for your progress?

Others expressed the exhaustion caused by their daily struggle against being co-opted by the very system they wish to see changed. And some considered whether, instead of spending our energies convincing existing academic institutions and societies to change their mindsets and business models, we might be better off creating new anti-racist academic spaces and homes for ourselves.

One thing that was widely agreed upon was that most of us have not been given the space or time to even imagine what a more inclusive, anti-racist psychological science could look like. Maybe there is some cause for optimism, however. Some delegates reflected on the cultural shift seen within psychology and other sciences in the past five years, with the replication crisis and the need for transparency dictating rapid and major changes in norms and practices. That suggests change is possible if folks in power want it to occur.

What became clear to me was that without a move to decolonise research, the talk about decolonising university curricula will remain in the realm of empty grandiloquence. Moreover, if we wish to conduct decolonised research and deliver decolonised teaching, we must empower not only individuals but also our academic institutions to embrace change.

When this happens, those institutions will be able to see, seize and fund the opportunities to decolonise research and teaching practices. And they will become a consortium for disseminating anti-racist knowledge, not merely within their campus walls but also far beyond them.

Masi Noor is associate professor in social psychology at Keele University. This piece benefited from thoughtful comments provided by Idia B. Thurston and Neil A. Lewis, who also attended the above-mentioned Princeton meeting.

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Reader's comments (3)

Drawback is, if we want to diversify our curricula properly, we need to ditch the divisive language of 'decolonising' and demonising the long heritage of academic thought that has been rooted in white/Western ideas. Think instead of widening and enhancing it by adding in the neglected materials from other ethnicies, other parts of the globe. This enriches the curriculum for all of us irrespective of location or ethnicity. We human beings are all branches of the same tree, we all spring from the same roots.
This discrimination against non-WEIRD samples in research is real. Despite editors of journal *claiming* to push towards publishing research with more diverse samples, the research is still primarily WEIRD: In addition, research using non-WEIRD samples are less likely to be cited than research sampling WEIRD samples, and this might exacerbate these research being less likely to be accepted for publication:
Psychological research is not research to me. It is social sciences.