Session 5

A5 The Decolonization of Spatial Ethnography: Perspectives and Limits

Ethically responsible research must necessarily attend to the effects its research generates. However, postcolonial structures shaped by historically reproduced power inequalities place additional demands on a critical and reflexive research practice. Thus, in the concept of Coloniality of Power, Quijano and Ennis (2000) highlight the effects of European-North American control over the production, dissemination, and form of knowledge (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2014). In Ordinary Cities, Robinson (2006) describes a similar dominance of the Northwest in urban studies. For the researcher, this raises ethical questions about the impact of his or her research, which go beyond the compliance with formal legal standards and ethical vows. A critical reflection about the impact of one’s own research can lead, in some cases, to adopt the principle of equity in research that allows to generate sufficient space for the researcher and the research participants to co-produce knowledge. Hereby, equitable approaches imply a decolonization of research and knowledge by centering concerns and world views of non-Western individuals, marginalized minoritie, knowledge systems, and cultural approaches of participants, respectfully knowing and understanding theory and research from ‘Other(ed)’ perspectives (Battiste, 2000; Datta, 2018; Smith, 2012). Though, decolonizing knowledge means, first of all, decolonizing the mind in ways that deconstruct dominant discourses around, for example, the Global South, which, in the scholarly discourse, represents a style of thought based upon the difference between the Global South and the Global North. In mapping geography, race, and culture onto one another, the category of the Global South fixes differences between people of the North and people of the rest of the world in ways so rigid that they might as well be considered innate (Abu-Lughod, 1991) and create an excessive otherness that produces power relations. Nevertheless, not only discourses, but rather also methodologies contribute in science to a production of power imbalances.
For instance, one can argue that the methodologies commonly in use for field research often contribute to generate power relations between the researcher and the knowledge holder. Especially when researching in non-Western or marginalized contexts (that we take here into consideration), the risk of reproducing stigmas through the selection and application of certain research methods represents a real threat (Beier, 2020; Valladares, 2019). Taking ethnographically-based spatial methods as one example, these are on one side undoubtedly a useful tool for understanding marginalisation, inequalities and social exclusion of the community under study and can add depth and dimension to the ethnographic analysis but also provide insights into people’s preferences, habits and social contexts for an understanding of how people engage with their physical and material environments (Low, 2016). On the other side, if the own position and the application of spatial methods based on ethnography are not subjected to careful critical reflection and appropriately adapted to the context, one runs the risk not only of producing power relations, but also of not doing justice to their understanding and meanings of space which, in most cases, differ from our own. As an important starting point, one should not neglect the evidence that our body generates itself power imbalances during the field research connected to, for instance, skin colour, origins, ways of wearing, world views, social and economic position, gender etc. These connotations (visible to all) become materialized into space by being localized in the body, a body that produces a space of dominance endowed with an invisible power capable of changing and determining new spatial configurations of the place under study. Another important aspect to be taken into consideration concerns the fact that the spatial methodologies applied are often conceived through lens of disciplines and theoretical orientations from a West- or Eurocentric context that differs from the one we are researching on, especially if the research takes place within marginalized or culturally unfamiliar places. Thus, the researcher often follows methodological guidelines to be founded in a manual not adapted to the local realities that mostly excludes the participation of the knowledge holders in the data production and that is not inclusive enough of their ways of perceiving, understanding, and producing space. This will lead to a spatial understanding and to interpretations different from that of the knowledge holders and, in a further step, to a knowledge production that will therefore be colonizing.

Following the current discourse on decolonization of research and knowledge, the session engages with a critical reflection around one’s own position that is able to produce space and to change spatial settings during the field research. Furthermore, the session encourages a deeper reflection around the application of ethnographically-based spatial methods, especially in marginalized and culturally unfamiliar contexts, and its effects on the production of knowledge. Thus, by avoiding the term Global South in order to not generate a division between the West and the rest, rather focusing on the idea of contexts being culturally and ideologically different, following questions are asked: (1) What does it mean to colonize knowledge around space? (2) In which ways we contribute to produce a colonizing knowledge around space in contexts culturally and ideologically different? (3) Can participation of the knowledge holders to the production of spatial data contribute to decolonize ethnographically-based spatial methods? (4) If yes, how to deal with objectivity and the evaluation of the data produced trough participation? (5) Which approaches can contribute to decolonize spatial ethnography? (6) What are the perspectives and the limits of decolonizing spatial ethnography? From the foregoing, the session welcomes papers that engage with: (a) Empirical examples based on doing spatial ethnography in culturally and ideologically unfamiliar contexts; (b) Conceptual and theoretical reflections; (c) Critical reflections on ethical and methodological issues; (d) Strategies to avoid post-colonial reproductions in the frame of the choice of specific ways of doing spatial ethnography; (e) Challenges related to the choice of a decolonial spatial language.