Friday, 1 June 2012

The Imperialism of Western Knowledge

The focus of this blog is the issue of knowledge production and its use by the academy to silence Indigenous voices.

Out of the mouths of babe's
Recently I was taking a tutorial at the University where I work in Brisbane.  The topic of discussion was 'arguments for and against giving Aboriginal peoples autonomy to practice customary law'.  When I asked students for arguments against the proposition one replied "we can't implement their [Aboriginal peoples'] laws cause they didn't write them down".  I then asked the class 'so, if it ain't written down, it is not valid knowledge', to which a few responded 'yes, because if it isn't written we can't believe it to be true'. 

It is tempting, but wrong to dismiss this kind of argument as the uninformed views of a small group of undergraduate students.  Uninformed they may be, but we should remember that they are articulating an ideology shared by many who work in criminology and the public service.  The ideology I write of is a very simple one: knowledge disseminated via Western methods (scientific enquiry) is legitimate (for developing and implementing crime control policy) and those derived from non-Eurocentric processes are not.  Welcome to the world of the Knowledge Wars.

The Indigenous revival and the knowledge wars
All Settler Societies have witnessed the cultural and political resurgence of their First Nations.   Important components of Indigenous revivalism include concerted efforts to save their languages and resurrect political institutions including those that engender the gathering and dissemination of knowledge (e.g., Kohanga Reo (pre-school) and Wananga (universities)).  Maori revivalist activity has brought with it the usual neo-con, redneck backlash. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist activists and scholars suffered backlash from (mainly) men unwilling to contemplate the loss of masculine hegemony over society and the construction and dissemination of knowledge.  In similar vein Indigenous revivalists have been the target of ideological warfare from (mainly) non-Indigenous institutions and individuals fearful that their Western, scientific knowledge will lose legitimacy with policy makers. More importantly, it may lose its shine with those who fund policy-focused research (more often than not the same institutions and individuals).

The backlash against Indigenous revivalism (in this case, Maori) and in particular against our knowledge processes, has generally taken three forms, represented here as a question or statement:
  1. All Maori are a 'problem', aren't they? The kind of comment you often hear from breakfast TV, talkback radio hosts, 'mainstream media' and politicians. Most know little about Maori either as individuals or communities, but are happy to educate us all with their puerile and uninformed comments about Maori culture and language being 'archaic' and 'stone aged', and representing Maori as 'problem darkies' who can only be saved if they shed their culture and join the modern, Western world. Prominent exponents of this rhetoric include John Banks, Michael Laws and anyone associated with the ACT party. 

  2. Do Maori really exist? A position taken mostly by economists and demographers who question whether Maori culture and identity, as it is practised today, is 'valid' given the rates of intermarriage. A fair 'empirical' question to ask, but too often in attempting to answer it members of the academy rarely talk to Maori or read existing scholarly texts developed by us on this subject. In others words there is a tendency from those asking this question to completely ignore research and literature on the socio-politics of identity construction (for a classic example of this approach see Callister, 2004). 

  3. Isn't Maori culture and knowledge unscientific (see 'stone age') and undemocratic? The focus of comments of this type are claims that contemporary Indigenous knowledge forms are unsuited to the modern era either because they are a) based on 'stone age' principles and beliefs, or, if that doesn't work, b) inauthentic because it is 'invented' by ideologically and politically driven natives to suck monies from Government or to empower tribal elites (see Rata, 2003 and Marie, 2010 for examples of this approach).

Connell (2006) argues that we can group the strategies used to silence the Indigenous Other into four main textual moves
  • Claims of universality: silencing the Indigenous Other through the ideological belief that Western science is the pinnacle of human knowledge construction and, importantly, that knowledge derived from it is applicable to all humans regardless of 'race', social and historical context
  • Reading from the centre: a tendency for the West to 'read the world' from its own position, and not from a position of the West's impact on other regions or peoples; 
  • Gestures of exclusion: where Western commentators analyse and speak about the Indigenous Other by focusing on (mainly) Western texts and theories; and 
  • Grand erasure: the process of writing about crime trends, etc as though any other context other than the 'West' exists, or is important, or similarly, discussing the neo-colonial present (for example, Maori over-representation) as though the colonial past never happened.  
All four moves are commonly found in criminological texts focused on Indigenous peoples.  For example, we can see it in the work of criminologists who publish tracts on Indigenous issues largely devoid of critical commentary or research carried out by Indigenous peoples; a classic example of a gesture of exclusion (see Newbold and Jeffries, 2010 - especially the section on New Zealand).  We see the strategy of universality in the claims of criminologists and policy makers that scientifically-derived interventions, based on Western social mores and norms, are applicable to all peoples regardless of 'race', culture and social context (for examples read anything published by New Zealand's Department of Corrections in relation to its criminogenic interventions and the Ministry of Justice re: its suite of crime prevention initiatives).  We see the systematic (and systemic) grand erasure of Indigenous justice knowledge throughout the work of the crime control industry, where Indigenous-derived commentary on justice issues is often totally absent from literature reviews, Cabinet papers and strategic documents.

The destruction of Indigenous knowledge in crime control policy
A recent publication by Marie (2010) is emblematic of attempts by members of the academy to support the policy sectors drive to exclude Indigenous knowledge from the policy making process.  In her article, Marie makes a number of contentious arguments, including two in particular that are closely linked, 1) crime control knowledge and interventions derived from Tikanga Maori are invalid in contemporary Western contexts because the methodologies used are non-Western and unscientific, and 2) New Zealand's crime control policy-makers have given power over to  Maori and 'Maori culture', which for the past 20 years or so has dominated the sectors policy, funding and intervention-related approaches to Maori crime.  Furthermore, these two interrelated issues explain why New Zealand's policy makers have made little impact on Maori rates of offending and imprisonment.  So, the crux of Marie's argument is that the ongoing over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system is because our unscientific approaches do not work to control offending, and because we have been crafty enough to con white policy makers into giving us control of the sector's Maori policy work and service delivery.

The only words that describe these claims are 'uninformed' and 'rubbish'. Like so much of this type of work, when we peel back the thin veneer of 'science' we can see that the Western academic is wearing no cloths. With regards Marie's work, you only need to perform the basic literature and document review any competent 2nd year criminology student would undertake to complete an essay, to uncover evidence that:
  1. Maori theory does not dominate policy making in any of New Zealand’s crime control agencies.  In fact the vast majority of policy, legislation, intervention design and funding decisions are informed by Eurocentric, imported ‘theories’ and interventions, such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and Rational Choice Theory in the Ministry of Justice and the Psychology of Criminal Conduct in the Department of Corrections (see the Ministry of Justice generated material on the recent Drivers of Crime project in New Zealand (2009a and 2009b); and
  2. The vast majority of government spend in New Zealand’s criminal justice system goes to imported Western crime control programmes, including the environmental and psychological initiatives mentioned above.  It is interesting to note that during the now defunct Effective Interventions initiative (2006-2007), Te Puni Kokiri officials were informed by crime control agencies that Maori-controlled initiatives received less than 10% of the sectors spend on therapy and other forms of intervention (see Tauri, 2011).
Celebrate deviant knowledge!*
None of the strategies used to silence Indigenous knowledge will come as a surprise to Indigenous commentators and other critical academics.  Our knowledge is, as Walters (2003) so aptly describes in his critique of criminological knowledge construction, of the deviant variety.  We should embrace and celebrate this title; for at least our knowledge is derived from engagement with our communities.  I would rather our work be considered deviant than hide behind the ideological facade expressed in such terms as 'empirical', 'scientific', 'rational' and 'value-free'. 

Indigenous and other critical scholars, commentators, community workers and the like, need to be aware of the material produced by those working to silence the Indigenous voice.  It is good to 'know your enemy', but let's not get too dazzled by their attempts to blind us with their claims to be scientific, especially when Connell (2006: 257) reminds us that in the development of their work :

"Debates among the colonised are ignored, the intellectuals of colonised societies are unreferenced, and social process is analysed in an ethnographic time-warp". 

Callister, P (2004) Ethnicity Measures, Intermarriage and Social Policy, New Zealand Journal of Social Policy, 23 (online).

Connell, R (2006) Northern Theory: The Political Geography of General Social Theory, Theoretical Sociology, 35: 237-264.

Marie, D. (2010) Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 283-300.  

Ministry of Justice. (2009a) Strategic Brief: Biological Risk Factors for Involvement in Crime.  Wellington: Ministry of Justice. 

Ministry of Justice. (2009b) Strategic Brief: Risk Factors and Causal Mechanisms for Offending.  Wellington: Ministry of Justice.  

Newbold, G. and Jeffries, S. (2010) Race, Crime and Criminal Justice in Australia and New Zealand, in A. Kalunta-Crumpton (ed.) Race, Crime and the Criminal Justice System: International Perspectives: 187-206. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rata, E (2003) An Overview of Neotribal Capitalism, Ethnologies Comparees, 6: 1-22.

Tauri, J. (2011) Indigenous Perspectives (reconfigured chapter), in R. Walters and T. Bradley (eds.), Introduction to Criminological Thought (2nd ed.): 187-210. Auckland: Pearson Longman.

Walters, R (2003) Deviant Knowledge: Criminology, Politics and Policy.  Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

* The term 'deviant knowledge' as it is used here is taken from the title and content of my colleague  Professor Reece Walters book Deviant Knowledge: Criminology, Politics and Policy.  

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