Decolonising knowledge production and (field) research: a personal experience on Iran
Posted on: 10 March 2023 by Stella Morgana (Length: 529 words - Read time: 2m 36s) in Blog posts
Stella Morgana considers the responsibility of researchers to avoid 'the imperialism of knowledge' when working with subjects from the Middle East.
What is the intrinsic value of conducting (field) research – whenever possible – within the context of decolonising academia and knowledge production, especially in the so-called Middle East and Iran in particular? How can a researcher effectively involve bottom-up perspectives in the process of knowledge production without reproducing orientalist narratives and hierarchical relations of power? How can methodology choices be adjusted in order to start thinking with Iranians – as in the specific case of my own research – and avoid speaking for them or on their behalf?
These questions have constantly permeated my work as a scholar since my doctoral research, during my years studying and living in Iran in different phases between 2016 and 2019, and then as a lecturer teaching about Middle East history and politics at the University of Amsterdam, and now as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Liverpool.
Asking inconvenient questions has been a difficult yet necessary labour of love for my academic self and my role as a researcher. This allowed me to navigate the main ethical, logistic, and security challenges I had to overcome while conducting research on and in Iran, along with the difficulties in conceptualising ethnographic work. The methodology choices I made affected the processes of knowledge production, in which I consciously involved the subjects (and main actors) of my researchers. Moreover, my results have been influenced by my positionality, how I was perceived by the Iranians I interviewed and by the conditions under which I conducted research for my PhD. As extensively discussed by Edward Said in his 'Orientalism', I realized that a pretentious 'objective' scholarship would have been only a fictitious though illogical goal within a context where 'everything is politics', in Antonio Gramsci’s words.
Involving subjects in the process of knowledge production
Negotiating my own identity as a researcher in order to avoid what Carapico calls the 'imperialism of knowledge' constituted an integral part of my research. Managing language learning and exploring the several shades of Iranian cultural, social and political nuances put me in a stimulating process of constantly re-defining, re-thinking and re-visiting my project and my role as a researcher. I learned to involve the subjects at the core of my research in the process of knowledge production, and so I have been engaged in a constant work of re-discussing and dismantling any hierarchies based on roles, age, and gender.
Moreover, I understood how language is crucial to absorb and decodify what occurs on a day-to-day basis so to grasp all the nuances of meaning. Within a process of knowledge production and learning at the same time, I was forced to re-conceptualise my ideas and re-adjust my methodological approach several times. I realised the limits of a top-down application of 'western procedures' to 'eastern protocols', as Mitra Shavarini explained, in a reality where informality occupies a relevant and porous border between private and public lives, exactly on the brink between a space of repression and a space of freedom.
Therefore, it is fundamental to keep asking inconvenient questions, keep learning local languages, challenging the habit of applying only western thinkers’ frameworks, as well as the practice of considering locals as 'respondents' and not knowledge producers.
About the author
Stella Morgana is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Liverpool, where she carries out a project on labour politics and gig workers in Iran. She is also deputy co-chair of the Research Staff Association at the UoL. Before joining the University of Liverpool, she was lecturer in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Previously, she held teaching and research positions at Leiden University, and was a visiting research scholar at SOAS University of London and Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran.
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Keywords: Fieldwork, Decolonisation, Research Staff Association, Researchers.