Research as a game of empire


First of all, an introductory note: to propose a one-size-fits-all definition of colonialism would be itself quite a colonial approach, and I would instead prefer to point you at this extensive reading list.

For the purpose of this article, it will suffice to say that colonialism is about the oppressive domination of lands and people as much as it is about those people’s alienation from selves, identities, historical heritages and ways of knowing, to paraphrase Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonisation is therefore an effort towards deconstructing structures of oppression as much as it is about making visible the deep histories of identities, cultures, knowledge and institutions (which in turn makes accusations of “tearing down history” either misinformed or disingenuous).

If you would prefer to explore this field of work with a specific focus on the University, pick up “Decolonising the University”, edited by Gurminder Bhambra, Kerem Nişancıoğlu and Dalia Gebrial.

My contribution is nothing more than an attempt to open those conversation to researchers in general.

Second, a necessary disclaimer: I am yet another white, European, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, decently salaried guy. While I undeniably benefit from past and present forms of colonialism, I also think that they immeasurably impoverish all of us. Indeed, they impoverish the whole world, simply by “ruling out” alternative ways of existing. While this is true in all fields, my experience most closely pertains to the field of Higher Education and Research (and, more specifically, Research on Higher Education), which is particularly dangerous due its positioning as a key engine of social replication and production.

It’s a colonially structured research community, and research assessment and funding criteria can’t help but perpetuate colonial patterns of inequality.

While I have previously discussed the impact of competitive dynamics on staff wellbeing, this post focuses on competition in research and, in particular, its colonial dimension. Again, my argument will echo the language of game design, one that is both accessible and, for historical reasons, replete with colonial metaphors. This approach seems even more fitting when discussing research, with all its pervasive scores, rules and rankings, or as I have started to call them the ‘Three Colonial Rulings’.

The First Colonial Ruling: Measurement

Now, measurement processes are meant to make the complexity of the world more manageable, and I do not intend to deny their usefulness and importance: a sizable part of the edifice of knowledge, and of our daily lives, is built with literal rulers.

However, we need to be mindful of what happens when measurement becomes the only description of the world that matters, particularly when it is aimed at maximising extraction of value. There is a breadth of historiography discussing the colonial character of mapping endeavours, as rulers where used to draw arbitrary boundaries, and segment the “wilderness” into more easily exploitable, geometrically equivalent plots of terrain. Similarly, the complexity of research practice and literature are relentlessly simplified and reduced to quantities, even “gamified”, in the current higher education environment. Through the use of “Q1” journals, “4 Star” papers, Impact Factor, and H-indexes, evaluation is increasingly less reliant on actually reading the actual papers, which squeezes out of the picture not only quality, but direct critical engagement with the literature. In the UK, disciplinary “Units of Assessment” strongly frame those plots, and make it very hard to survive in the “wilderness” of inter- and trans-disciplinarity.

The Second Colonial Ruling: Rules

Under colonial structuring, the “wilderness” is an uncivilised, unruly space, whereas civilisation is characterised by rules. Rules, both in games and reality, are intended to establish a sense of fair play, if not of righteousness. Again, while I’m far from rejecting rules entirely (as they often provide a degree of protection for the less powerful), they have been just as often deployed to oppress: colonial endeavours were marked everywhere by their restructuring of local relationships and patterns of behaviour in legal terms that were easier to translate and assimilate within the structure of the Empire.

Similarly, the current “rules of the game” in research seem to favour those who are already in positions of power. A central, unquestioned rule is the fact that research needs to be a zero sum-game of winners and losers. This unquestioned rule gives rise to concepts like competitive research funding. The processes surrounding competitive funding, which are supposed to deliver a vague notion of “excellence” (PDF) instead reinforce patterns of privilege that that are often very literally founded upon the atrocities of colonialism. Winners win more (which is very bad design for any game, by the way, just think of Monopoly), and become elite.

The Third Colonial Ruling: Hierarchy

Through this self-reinforcing feedback loop the sorting order becomes then naturalised and ossified (as the rules are “fair”, remember?), and a hierarchy emerges. In colonialism, local horizontal relationships were restructured into pyramids, to more easily fit the mould of the Empire.

For the research context, it’s clear how we have an entrenched, small community of “World Leading Institutions”, almost unavoidably from those same countries who have most prominently engaged in, and benefited from, colonialism. This Ruling underlies and shapes the other two: who wields the ruler and measures the world? Who holds the power to shape the rules that anoint people as members of the elite? These same policymakers often studied in the same world leading institutions, ensuring the perpetuation of an embedded colonial mindset.

Playing by Other Rules?

This colonial character of the current research governance, publication, assessment and funding regime envelopes and hurts us all. But surrendering to the “that’s how it is” perspective is another form of cultural colonialism, which obfuscates the historicised and contingent nature of every societal arrangement to present a specific configuration as civilised, or natural. There are things we can do to play by different rules.

Some solutions can be found at the policy level (e.g. considering alternative, non-competitive models of funding that don’t favour those who have made themselves great at “the game” by building their fortunes on exploitation). Some solutions can be find at the institution and academic practice level (e.g. considering alternative models of publication that don’t favour individualism and extraction, which are more open to the general public than to sterile assessment exercises).

On the most basic level,  however, decolonising research is about recovering an awareness of our shared humanity:  whenever one of the above mechanisms hurts someone (including us), even when we can’t do anything about it, we can try and be open about it.

Cooperation can’t exist without trust and communication, and “brotherhood begins in shared pain”, as Ursula LeGuin wrote. We might ‘have’ to play the game as it is right now, but we should also denounce the suffering and iniquity inherent to it.

Who Changes the Rules?

On a concluding note: I do not believe in putting more of a burden on those who are most oppressed by demanding that they speak up. As someone in a position of relative privilege and safety, I have the opportunity and profile to spend some of my time writing things like this piece, and a responsibility to amplify the voices of those who are not in such a position.

While I have little confidence that change can come from the top (that would be quite a colonial idea!), the responsibility for speaking out should weighs doubly on our leaders and managers, as again their positions of relative privilege provides them with heightened safety and leverage to open up spaces of conversations. As shapers and enforcers of rulings at different levels, it would be easier for them to allow some space for unruliness. And it would be the responsible thing to do, if we deem the university to be not only a place at which to pick up skills, but a potential force of social justice, equity and democracy.

A very simple thing of doing this would be for them to say, loudly and publicly, that they would prefer not to participate in the above mentioned colonial aspects of higher education.

Maybe, at the end of the day, we will find that very few actually would.

Author Bio: Dr Luca Morini is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Learning Education and Attainment of Coventry University.