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Knowledge with and from the Global South: lessons from psychology

By Guest Writer, Geetha Reddy


Hegemonic psychology takes an ethnocentric perspective even when understanding the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of people living in communities in different sociocultural, political, and historical contexts but it does not account for its ethnocentrism.

This zero-point epistemology that conceals the geo-historical and bio-graphical location of its knowledge creates the figure of a detached observer and furthers the idea of universal knowledge (Mignolo, 2009). One of the ways this is visible is when theories developed under the purvey of Western psychology are taken as universally applicable to the entire human population. This notion of psychological universals also benefits from the large volume of published psychological research taking place in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic; Heinrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010) contexts. University students across the world have been, and continue to be, taught theories and research findings detached from the WEIRD contexts where they originate, and often as the correct and universal way of looking at the world. Advocates for greater inclusion in the social sciences have pushed for a diversity of empirical research studies. However, the move to un-WEIRD psychology has led to more research done on, and not with, Otherised peoples. In a bid to increase the generalisability of theories originating from the Global North, scholars have sought to replicate findings of hegemonic psychology in the Global South. This has led to an uptake of scholarship in non-WEIRD countries, by scholars from WEIRD countries. In addition, research taking place in non-WEIRD societies by scholars from those communities is often met with the expectation that it should speak to or replicate findings from WEIRD societies. This shifting of participant sampling from WEIRD populations to non-WEIRD populations has continued the imbalance of power as the psychologies of Otherised peoples continue to be seen as worthy either because their psychologies present an alternative viewpoint to hegemonic thought or because hegemonic theories are replicated in alternative contexts. In both situations, Otherised peoples are constructed as subjects of psychological research, faintly echoing early anthropological colonial studies. Thankfully scholars are becoming increasingly aware of epistemological violence, that is the theoretical interpretations of empirical results that construct the Other as inferior (Teo, 2010) and are taking action to critique and correct knowledge that reproduces such narratives. Nevertheless, this obsession of the generalisabilty of findings could also be thought of as a remanent of colonial projects. The politics of knowledge cannot be separated from the understanding of the empire and imperialism as detailed by Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2021). Indigenous communities were forced to follow and adhere to rules, customs, and ways of their colonisers. Endogenous knowledges were subjugated and therefore our conversations around deconstructing how knowledge is produced also needs to take into account epistemological decolonisation. Coloniality, formed during colonial occupation and persisting after the formal end of colonial rule is seen in the habits of mind, ways of being, strategic relations of power and systems of knowledge. This is a form of epistemic violence inflicted upon colonised peoples around the world (Decolonial Psychology Editorial Collective, 2021). Understandings of systematically excluded and historically marginalised (Global South) communities, scholarship and practices produced by scholars in and from the Global South are not to be constructed as subjects of study. Rather, due recognition of their work as rigorous intellectual praxis and acknowledgement of their humanity needs to be accorded. The campaign to recognise scholarship from Otherised peoples has resulted in an increase in the hiring of scholars from these communities. A welcome change, this only signals the start of a long process of un-doing and making-right of the deeply violent and exclusionary practices of hegemonic psychology. However, Otherised scholars have to perform their worthiness, and in some cases even outperform their colleagues, to be allowed into the ivory towers of psychology. In addition, their performance needs to showcase a diversity of thought without disrupting hegemonic psychology. This focus on diversifying curriculums by simply adding more Black and brown scholarship rather than challenging the foundations of whitestream psychology is yet another manifestation of violence within academia. Once in, scholars of colour in particular face unique challenges. The politicisation of knowledge often results in hypervisibility of scholars of colour and the invisibility of white scholars and scholarship because of the zero-point epistemology that is endemic to hegemonic psychology. Scholars of colour are constantly expected to announce our epistemologies and ontologies at every stage of our research given how we are positioned in whitestream academia based on our visible identities and connections with our research participants. Why are such demands directed at researchers of colour specifically? What does this tell us about understandings of knowledge production and knowledge worth in our own disciplines? Indeed, despite academia’s reputation of liberal or even radical political ideologies, and more specifically psychology’s aim to understand and overcome inequality, much of the knowledge that is shared, reproduced and seen as central to disciplines reflects the dichotomy of who is worthy of being listened to as contributing to knowledge and who is (and can be) ignored. When focusing simply on the inclusion of different identity categories (such as increasing the hire of non-white psychologists), we are at best inviting people to this table of whiteness. We are not changing the white supremacist institutional structures that continue to alienate and Otherise scholars from marginalised communities. Eradicating the barriers to Black and brown scholars’ participation and scholarship in whitestream psychology is a necessary step to take if psychology were to take its agenda on ensuring equitable representation in its institutions seriously (Dupree & Kraus, 2021). We must not stop here though. Other forms of epistemic violence persist in the ways that research is conducted and published, and curriculums are built in higher education. For example, research from the Global South that did not conform to existing Western theories and models were considered exceptions that unfortunately left the theoretical bases unchallenged (Sinha, 1998). One response for integration and acceptance into mainstream psychology was for local psychologies in various societies to develop their own respective indigenous psychologies, with the hope that “they then be gradually integrated to form a genuine global psychology” (Yang, 1997; p. 70). Yet, this model of global psychology has not always been considered feasible because it has been viewed as continuing the hegemony of the West (Bhatia, 2002). Indigenous psychologies are crucial, yet by classifying applied psychological work as indigenous psychology only the problem persists because when whitestream psychology fails to engage with such research, the insights that psychology as a discipline can gain then diminish. Without an open and equal engagement with different communities around the world, internationalisation of psychological research and theories remains an imperialist endeavor that is both expansionist (that is, based on the idea that the right way of doing psychology needs to be given away to people outside of the USA and Western Europe) and assimilationist (that is, international work will need to be incorporated into mainstream Western centric psychology) (Adams, 2018). Like many critical scholars, I refer to the Global South as an orienting lens, rather than a geographical positioning, to centre the marginalisation and colonisation that has systematically excluded and historically unrepresented colonised peoples, their knowledges and their scholarship. This is not to say that all communities in the Global South share the same struggles, or that decolonisation processes alone will result in equitable societies. Homogenising cultures (and nation states associated with those cultures) has been a facile way of understanding the Other (Sinha, 1996). An understanding of how pre-colonial hierarchical structuring of societies, such as the caste system in South Asia, continue to enact violence on marginalised communities in the Global South is important in exposing the ways in which knowledge produced by Indigenous communities remains erased by academics from those Global South countries. I speak as a scholar from the Global South working within Global North institutions who has had their voice and being controlled in the spaces I have lived in. Yet I have benefited from the ways my ancestors built and maintained power for those like themselves at the expense of others deemed less worthy. Uncovering our complicities in the creation and maintenance of hierarchies of knowledge needs to be central to our research process. This excavation is often an emotional process as challenging able-bodied, cis-hetero patriarchal, white supremacy when creating a justice-oriented psychology is unsettling and disruptive. Even so, there needs to be a shift beyond a recognition of individual privileges and land acknowledgements to a critique of institutional structures, uncritical application of hegemonic theories to communities in the Global South and erasure of Indigenous knowledges. Up until recently, hegemonic psychology failed to acknowledge that contemporary knowledge of human behaviour maintains, reinforces and reproduces structures of inequality which reverberate within our societies and is part of the epistemic violence enacted on peoples Otherised within whitestream Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2021). There are several paths to building better worlds where knowledge from the global majority can be centred. Malherbe and comrades (2021) shared that a decolonial Africa(n) centred psychology does more than direct attention to settings and social actors that have been neglected by mainstream psychology. It is a transformational rethinking (or an unthinking) of hegemonic WEIRD science. A decolonial psychology requires us to not only appreciate Other ways of knowing as legitimate sources of understanding about the embeddedness and relationality of life but also recognises the violence that whitestream psychology has wrought via investment in and refinement of modern/colonial individualist lifeways as a model for human life (Decolonial Psychology Editorial Collective, 2021). This paradigm shift also requires a decentring of existing standards of knowing and being in Psychology (Decolonial Psychology Editorial Collective, 2021). And yet decolonising psychology is an incomplete project as long as curriculum development and hegemonic institutional structures continue to profit in the ways that they do currently. An application of decolonial praxis on knowledge production requires a restructuring of not only the way universities teach psychology but also the way it benefits from it. This is the work of transnational collectives of scholars engaged in building solidarity and committing to liberate our minds and bodies from whitestream knowledge production even when it may benefit us in the short term. May we continue to “coax the demise of anti-Black racist psychologies” (Suffla & Seedat, 2020; p294) and align with epistemologies from the South (de Souza Santos, 2014) in our pursuit of epistemic justice. References: Adams, G. (2018). Internationalize your SPSSI Life. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://www.spssi.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=2268&nodeID=1 American Psychological Association. (2021, October 29). Apology to People of Color for APA’s Role in Promoting, Perpetuating, and Failing to Challenge Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Human Hierarchy in U.S. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/about/policy/racism-apology. Bhatia, S. (2002). Orientalism in Euro-American and Indian psychology: Historical representations of “natives” in colonial and postcolonial contexts. History of Psychology, 5(4), 376–398. Decolonial Psychology Editorial Collective. (2021). General Psychology Otherwise: A Decolonial Articulation. Review of General Psychology. 25(4), 339-353. de Souza Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group. Dupree, C. H., & Kraus, M. W. (2021). Psychological science is not race neutral. Perspectives on Psychological Science, https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620979820 Malherbe, N., Ratele, K., Adams, G., Reddy, G., & Suffla, S. (2021). A Decolonial Africa (n)-Centered Psychology of Antiracism. Review of General Psychology, 25(4), 437-450. Mignolo, W. D. (2009). Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and decolonial freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7–8), 159–181. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2021) The cognitive empire, politics of knowledge and African intellectual productions: reflections on struggles for epistemic freedom and resurgence of decolonisation in the twenty-first century, Third World Quarterly, 42(5), 882-901. Sinha, D. (1996). Culture as the target and culture as the source: A review of cross-cultural psychology in Asia. Psychology and Developing Societies, 8(1), 83-105. Sinha, D. (1998). Changing perspectives in social psychology in India: A journey towards indigenization. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 1(1), 17–31. Suffla, S., & Seedat, M. (2020). Decoloniality and psychology’s reckoning with rebellion. South African Journal of Psychology, 50(3), 293-295. Teo, T. (2010). What is epistemological violence in the empirical social sciences?. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 295-303. Yang, K. (1997). Indigenizing westernized Chinese psychology. In M. H. Bond (Ed.), Working at the interface of culture: twenty lives in social science (pp. 62–76). London: Routledge.

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