Decolonization of science: the importance of liberating science from dependence on the Western world


In the global academic community, there is a view that Indonesian scientists absorb scientific developments like following a mere trend.

This is seen in the social sciences and humanities. The development of theory in a global scope is often used as a reference for Indonesian academics in teaching, research, and even as a topic of conversation between fellow academics.

In the 1990s , for example, all scientists were intrigued to talk about postmodernism (a critical and skeptical attitude towards modern scientific insights). Meanwhile, in the 2000s , the perspective of cultural studies (dissecting the politics and history of various cultures that exist today) became the champion after the declining popularity of other social theories.

The invitation to break away from this “me-too” tradition has actually been around for decades.

In 1986, political scientist Muhammad Rusli Karim via Kompas Daily explained the importance of Indonesian scientists seeking their own theory. The writer and sociologist Ignas Kleden also tries to introduce the discourse of “indigenization” (the earthing of indigenous insights in Indonesia) to social sciences.

Unfortunately, these ideas only sound faint in the midst of the dominance of pro-development global social sciences.

Today, there is a new momentum for the Indonesian academic community to break away from dependence on foreign theories, namely through the ” decolonization of science ” movement (decolonization of knowledge).

Although not yet widely adopted by Indonesian scientists, the decolonization of science offers an important foothold so that the world of higher education and science in Indonesia can find its own voice.

Freeing science from colonialist character

The decolonization of science is an invitation to get out of the domination of knowledge production that is oriented towards colonial countries – more specifically the Western world (eurocentrism) – so that more scientific space appears for academics in other parts of the world.

In the view of decolonization, science is now centered in Western civilization, while science actors from the areas they colonized have always been only objects of knowledge.

Thus, “we”, scientists of non-Western countries, do not have the authority to investigate ourselves, let alone raise the level of knowledge that may have been available from previous centuries in the community we know.

In fact, this colonialist view of science is often racist – such as portraying “colored people” or Southerners as unintelligent or abnormal.

Efforts to escape this domination, especially in higher education, have been started since the emergence of the decolonization movement in the 1960s in East Africa.

The decolonization of science in the current era is part of a wider emancipatory (liberation) movement. For example, it’s also been driven by other social movements outside universities that advocate for human rights and social justice – from Black Lives Matter to #Metoo.

However, the most important thing from the decolonization of science is an attempt to get out of the absolutes of science that was born from the colonial process.

At least, this is the great aim of the scientists who are pushing the decolonization discourse. Most of these writers are from Latin America, South Asia, as well as Africa.

Decolonization of science in Indonesia

Unfortunately, almost no social scientists from Indonesia participated in the discourse.

This is quite ironic. Social scientist Walter Mignolo , for example, emphasized how Indonesia once had a big role in the decolonization of global politics, namely through the Asia-Africa Conference.

Indonesia has always supported efforts to liberate colonized countries, but not many of our social scientists have done so in the realm of social theory.

The reason for this scarcity is closely related to the suppression of leftist literature or Marxism that has occurred since 1965. The power of the New Order became a big reason why post-colonial, decolonial, or even Marxism thought did not have a strong footing in the Indonesian social-humanities sciences.

In fact, we can see traces of colonial lenses in science in Indonesia – not only in the social sciences but also in the natural sciences.

Exact sciences such as biology and medicine need to open themselves up by first questioning the origins of all their scientific foundations, especially those relevant to the Indonesian context.

Biological researcher Sabhrina Gita Aninta, for example, explained the bias of the Western perspective which seemed “surprised” when examining biodiversity in such a rich equatorial region. In fact, some academics also question the naming of fauna such as orangutans , the process is full of imperialist politics and eliminates the insight of the Iban Dayak tribe in Kalimantan.

Indonesia is still home to strands of local insights that we have yet to recognize and name. This is different from their colleagues in Latin America, who have succeeded in breaking away from dependence on Western knowledge while celebrating their local knowledge.

The idea of ​​a “ pluriverse ”, a collection of insights that seeks to challenge the global development narrative that is full of business interests and greenwashing (misleading eco-friendly claims), for example, is an example of counter knowledge gaining popularity and acceptance by the global scientific community.

Efforts like this can be an inspiration for Indonesian scientists to try to think in the spirit of decolonization.

Reaching the same degree

So far, there has been boredom among Indonesian scientists against the dominance of existing theories. This then encourages them to follow the trends of the scientific revolution – often one that is oriented towards the West.

However, it could be that this tendency stems from the sense of inferiority of Indonesian scientists who find it difficult to present their ideas without being supported by theories that they feel are quite “cool”.

This factor actually strengthens the dominance of Western knowledge.

In his article, sociologist Leon Moosavi reminded academics not to simply “follow the grubyuk” (follow-up), and must immediately ride the decolonization carriage because everyone is busy being ridden.

The problem in Indonesia is actually reversed because the carriages are very quiet, even though the train has been waiting for a long time to launch.

Another important note is that the decolonization of science is not just a matter of policy. There are already too many problems in the realm of science in Indonesia, all of which want to be answered with “policy” . Not so with the decolonization of science – it is a matter of academic tradition.

The decolonization of science started from a willingness to look into each other’s disciplines and ask questions about whether or not it was possible to conduct a search for truth without having to rely on the thinking of Western scientists.

One decolonization thinker, Gurminder Bhambra, warns that decolonization does not mean rejecting Western theory – it never was.

What is more appropriate is the need to place theories or scientific insights from the Southern world in an equal and equal degree in the production of global knowledge. This is what eventually gradually became the goal of Indonesian scientists.

Author Bio: Fajri Siregar is a PhD Candidate a the University of Amsterdam