Mural showing a forest and three Zapatistas whose faces are covered

Academic extractivism and the trend towards de-contextualization in the social sciences

Mural showing a forest and three Zapatistas whose faces are covered
Caracol Nueva Jerusalén, EZLN territory, Chiapas, Mexico. Taken on December 31, 2023. Upper text: We all have right to a dignified and fair information. Below text: Democracy Freedom and Justice

I have been meaning to discuss an academic trend in the social sciences for quite some time: ‘academic extractivism’. The main feature of this practice is the severing of the link between the knowledge and its context. By referring to ‘objectivity’ in a way that allows de-contextualization by separating the knowledge from the context in which it was produced, this extractivism is very similar to economic extractivism based on the extraction and transfer of natural economic resources, such as oil, gold, or carbon. That is, academic extractivism results in taking data from one context in order to ‘process’ it and produce something else according to the needs of a very different (and dominating) context. It is therefore a colonial practice based on using material from here to satisfy needs over there, subordinating the resources of the colonized and dominated to the needs of the colonizer and dominator. Moreover, this extractivism is legitimized by the argument that it is the only way to produce knowledge. This is caused by the fixation on ‘generalizability’, which is seen as the ultimate goal of science, and the pretense of ‘objectivity’.

As researchers conducting qualitative research in the so-called ‘Global South’ or ‘peripheral’ contexts, we have all been confronted with comments that we should show how our research is relevant to other, essentially ‘Global North’ contexts. Now, obviously our research has implications for different contexts, and it will inform research conducted in the Global North, just as research conducted in different contexts informs our research. If I can cite Butler, Foucault, or Agamben, it is because what they have said is relevant to what I am trying to understand. I am pretty sure that most researchers would not deny that.

But what we are actually being asked to do is different. We are asked to de-contextualize our research so that the information can be easily used to meet different needs. These requests are sometimes made directly by reviewers during the peer review process. We are asked to make the unique characteristics of our context invisible, so that it is easily transferable. I, on the other hand, am against de-contextualization. Context is probably the most important aspect of qualitative work. Every single context is unique. All conflicts are different. They all have specific cultural, social, and political characteristics. None of them are interchangeable. I mean, that was obvious before. If Malinowski goes to a different island, he conducts a completely different research and finds very different things. It is obvious that the research on the Colombian conflict will inform research on other conflicts around the world. But for that to happen, it has to be well grounded in its context. Only if you can really understand the relevant characteristics of the Colombian context, will you be able to use that research to inform the research you are conducting on the other side of the world. De-contextualization is the opposite. Imagine looking at a column from an Egyptian ruin without knowing anything about the context from which it was taken and shipped to a museum in London. It will be just an old column. All possible interpretations require contextual knowledge.

So, how to explain the trend towards de-contextualization? I think it is because it is convenient for most ‘Global North’ institutions. For one thing, it makes it easier to conduct research in far-away lands. You take a couple of short research trips and write your paper. The research is considered valid as long as you think that having experienced the context does not add much to the scientific rigor of it. I find it extremely surprising that many of us, the so-called ‘Global South’ researchers, are advised to get a native English speaker to revise out writing, but it seems that no one is suggesting that someone familiar with the context should proofread your text? You might overlook an important cultural difference, you (or your translators) might misinterpret a sentence, or you might ignore a well-known fact. Why not send the research to someone whose lived experience you are interpreting? Is this less important than possible grammatical ‘infelicities’, which should be corrected by the journals’ professional copy editors anyways? I cannot help but to think that these demands for de-contextualization are about continuing to benefit from academic research without adequately compensating researchers from the contexts, a bit similar to economic extractivism. We work on the data, so that it can be easily transferred and processed elsewhere.

I think that personal involvement is fundamental in social research. I think it is important to interact with the marks of violence in a given context in order to study it. I think that this knowing generates a different perspective. It is knowing with all your senses, touching the traces of violence, smelling them, seeing them in your daily interactions. Knowing what the Napalm smells like in the morning does make a difference. And I think that contemporary social science is devaluing this knowledge too much, to the extent that it sometimes leads to accusations of being ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ in favor of researchers without first-hand knowledge on the context. And I suspect that genuine scientific worries based on an outdated conceptualization of objectivity are only part of the problem, the other part having less to do with intellectual concerns and more to do with legitimizing and re-producing the status quo.

What can be possibly done? Well, I don’t really have an answer but I can make some suggestions that I think can point us in a new direction. As academic researchers working in ‘otherized’ contexts, we should engage with each other’s work more often. At present, most of us limit our dialogue to our own region and the global centers of knowledge production. When we talk about the rise of the far-right, we establish a dialogue with previous literature on the US and the EU (e.g. the obligatory Trump references). I suggest that while we may still choose to maintain this dialogue, we should extend it to other so-called ‘Global South’ contexts, such as the Philippines or India. This would require us to read more diverse research, thus, challenging the current disciplinary systems in which work on African, Asian, and Latin American contexts is often directed to Area Studies journals while work on the US and Europe is considered more appropriate for the so-called ‘generalist’ journals.

Promoting the learning of more languages can also be a good long-term goal. 30 years ago, Wallerstein was arguing that ‘a scholar who cannot read three to five major scholarly languages is severely handicapped’. Perhaps we can try to remember the importance of a multilingual academia. Meanwhile, in the short term, we can encourage more translations and multilingual academic work, rather than focusing solely on English.

Finally, I think we should challenge the assumptions of objectivity and the goals of generalization. We should argue that the value of our work in ‘peripheral’ contexts is important beyond its possible policy implications for the so-called ‘Global North’. And we should insist on the importance of the context and be bold enough to question the findings of research that is not well informed by context. I think we can strive to be as bold as those who suggest having our text read by a ‘native speaker’ by questioning the first-hand contextual knowledge of researchers based in Europe and the US when they write about the regions in which we work.



2 responses to “Academic extractivism and the trend towards de-contextualization in the social sciences”

  1. Joseph Kuhn Avatar

    The context of views and perceptions is important to understand what they mean and how they solve problems for certain people. But that doesn’t mean we should give up the claim to objectivity and generalizability. There are many contexts, but not many truths.

    Recommended reading:
    Paul Boghossian: Fear of knowledge. Against Relativism and Constructivism.
    Charles W. Tolman: Psychology Society & Subject.

    Tolman’s book shows that thinking from the standpoint of the subject does not argue against the claim of generalizability.

    1. serhattutkal Avatar

      Thanks for the comment! The issue is too complex for me to respond as a brief comment, instead I’ll write my next post about it whenever I can find some time.

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