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Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Migrants and New Directions in the Social Sciences

Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Sciences revives my mind. Last week, I sat down at my table one evening, frustrated, for having to read over and over again about the minds of “high” social theorists. My thoughts wonder: Why are they the only greatest minds in academia? Are there no other thinkers in other parts of the world? Why are we not reading about them? What were people doing in my own country around that time? Are there no thinker in Burma? I know Myanmar was for a long period of time a “closed” country to the rest of the world and its people were broken down physically and mentally by colonial and authoritarian regimes. But does it mean that no one thinks in Myanmar? 

Side note: Aung San Su Kyi was highly praised for being on the foreground of Burmese intellectual world but with ongoing Rohingya crisis, she has been largely criticized by international community to a point where the West calls for revoking her Nobel Peace Prize https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/05/rohingya-aung-san-suu-kyi-nobel-peace-prize-rohingya-myanmar Among those international acts of condemnation, one of which is the removal of the painting of her image in Oxford College https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/29/oxford-college-removes-painting-of-aung-san-suu-kyi-from-display This interjection is not my support for her political stance in Rohingya affairs but to call into question of the West’s continuing colonial relationship with formerly colonized countries like Myanmar on intellectual grounds.

These questions reminded me to visit the archives during fieldwork and to do research on Burmese thinkers and their philosophies. I indulged myself more and giggled at the “wild” idea about only citing thinkers from Burma in my dissertation. It would definitely be an outrageous act because first and foremost I am merely a graduate student having to try to prove myself as deserving of a spot in dominant anthropology—“that continues to endorse a model of scholarship in which the lives of cultural others constitute the legitimate objects of scholarly inquiry and to practice forms of research that distribute power upward, from those being studied to those doing the studying” (loc 214)—before joining forces in other revolutionary veins of anthropology like “action anthropology,” and “collaborative anthropology.” Even Daniel Goldstein, a tenured professor and the ally of decolonial work in anthropology, was warned by his colleague not to pursue such work because only scholarly and academic work—however it is defined—is “what we do best” (loc 948).  

I ask these questions not only as a native scholar but also simply as someone from Myanmar who wonders about her own way of life—beyond as the object of study. They are not complaints about my responsibilities as a PhD student to read in general. It is discouraging to know that my own culture and people do not seem to contribute to forms of knowledge production. Because of this reason, I refuse the fact that disagreement can stimulate our minds and thoughts as scholars. Audra Simpson and Marisol de la Cadena have shown in their work that we must do beyond disagreeing with dominant forms of knowledge production in academia where scientific knowledge is painstakingly extracted, sparsely teased out, cleanly packaged alongside repetitively cited theories for easy consumption in the West. The discourse on agreeing to disagree highlights the need of tolerance. This is what the authors of Decolonizing Ethnography also points out; “Railing against colonial legacies, in other words, may make liberal academics feel better about themselves for being historically grounded and politically astute without requiring them to actually admit how colonialism colors their own research and writing” (loc 902). 

Decolonizing Ethnography is accessibly written and revolutionizing. It engages in timely theoretical conversations: decolonial theory and feminist theory in particular. Collaborative nature of the research itself is a model for which future anthropologists—both already professing and in training—should approach their research interests. One methodological question I have from the book is about “studying up.” The authors of the book point out how “some anthropologists ‘study up,’ focusing their attention on powerful people and institutions” (loc 310). They have broken away from traditional anthropological inquires to study “the poor, the marginalized, the indigenous, the powerless” (loc 310). So, how does their “studying up” of the powerful intersect with their racial and economical positionality? By that, I mean, when a white researcher, or white-passing in the case of Caro, studies the power structure in another society that is still perceived as “the marginalized” compared to the researcher’s own society, does that still considered as “studying up”? Perhaps, this is what Alpa Shah calls for attention with an emphasis on alienation from one’s own culture prior to fieldwork. However, how do embodied experiences of anthropologists from which one cannot alienate such as whiteness work interfere or work together with ‘studying up’ in attempts to decolonize ethnography and anthropology? 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Each sentence in the book makes me want to jump. It is encouraging to know that there are anthropologists who are already engaged in these conversations. It is at the same time discouraging to know that as a scholar of color, my way of thinking and knowing are still considered as “only able to base urges and emotions” (I am highly emotional writing this response) and as a result “disposable” (loc 653) at least until I prove my worth which could mean stripping off my native sensibilities. In the space and time of postcolonial knowledge-advancing world, my body is allowed to roam free in the hallways of academia but my mind and soul? They are still strictly colonized

What would it mean to decolonize your own research?

To decolonize my own research, I need to first decolonize myself—to push back on “high” theories that are being imposed upon me, the definition of knowledge as it is defined in the academy that sometimes rubs me in the wrong way. I need to explore within myself first that disjuncture between self and “acceptable” knowledge. Last night, I talked about two Burmese words for knowing with Juan: thi vs. tat. The first one is a way of knowing that is reflexive and inclusive of not just the things that you know about but also the fact that you know them. It is a metapragmatic way of knowing. On the other hand, the latter is acquiring skills like in I know how to swim; I know how to read, etc. There is no problem with the latter way of knowing because that is how we function day to day. We know how to walk from home to campus. We know how to write a paper. But, what’s more important is do we know how we know them? Sometimes (or most of the time) not! At the moment, I wonder how even I got here in the academy. This is where the disjuncture of knowing happens within me. If I don’t question or explore that disjuncture, do I really know? That’s the first step I need to take to decolonize myself. How much of my way of knowing are being influenced by the way I am persuaded to think in the academy? How much of my way of doing ethnography is shaped by the whole genealogy of research and theory put before me?

© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.