Decolonising the Construction and Production of Knowledge

Posted on: 27 October 2021 by Marisa Sehmar in Posts

This summer, I held an internship at the University of Liverpool on Dr Natalie Hanna’s project, ‘Decolonising the Database’. My time was spent generating an online, interactive database of new materials which would help diversify, decolonise and decentre the English curriculum. When conducting my research, it quickly became indisputable that companies and universities of the Global North dominate the academic publishing market. As such, they stand at the critical crossroads in the construction and production of knowledge in society: they decide what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ of the marketplace of ideas. 

In 2020, a survey of publishing houses in the United Kingdom revealed the industry to be overwhelmingly white with representation of individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups at merely 13%. Of this 13%, only 3% identified as Black or Black British, 6% as Asian or Asian British, 3% as having mixed or multiple ethnicities and 1% identified as belonging to another minority ethnic group. This lack of diversity within the publishing industry is then extended to the works that those within it choose to publish. These publishing houses focus their efforts on distributing books acquired in the Global North where they have rights, and are therefore highly unlikely to pick up on and publish books by writers located in the Global South. 

Such reliance on these ‘esteemed’ publishing houses has led to the validation of certain kinds of knowledge. Greater prominence is given to individuals from the Global North, which marginalises those who publish elsewhere. This perpetuation of a two-tiered system of global scholarship must be understood as part of the continuing legacy of colonialism. Sociologist Aníbal Quijano has termed this legacy “coloniality”, whereby the colonial legacy of oppression and exploitation lives on in numerous interrelated domains, including the domain of knowledge. For, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, “knowledge and culture were just as much part of imperialism as raw materials and military strength”. Colonizers severed indigenous peoples from their histories, their languages, their terrains, and their own ways of thinking, feeling and interacting with the world. Subsequently, the indigenous forms of knowledge production were fragmented and displaced, with a global cultural order revolving around European hegemony taking its place. It is this thinking, centred around the Eurocentric epistemic canon, that now commands the publishing market of the Global North.  

As calls to decolonise academia grow, it is imperative that the publishing houses do not limit themselves to the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of change, such as diversification, and instead seek radical, deep cognitive justice. As historian Ndlovu-Gatsheni explains, decolonisation demands a “rethinking thinking” in order to unsettle the Eurocentric paradigms and to (re)imagine alternative ways of understanding the world - ways that foster the production of endogenous knowledge, free from the threat of colonial imposition.