By Jamie Gorman
How can we move beyond research extractivism as justice focused scholars working with communities and movements? Here is a set of principles to help researchers design anti-extractivist research.
What does a social researcher have in common with an oil rig operator? The answer is that both can be miners engaged in the extraction of a precious resource. Fossil fuel companies engage in extractivist practices that create ‘sacrifice zones’ (Lerner, 2010), where communities and environments are devalued, degraded and often displaced so that commodities can be mined. Similarly, researchers can mirror the practice of commodity extractivism by extracting resources like knowledge, wisdom and stories in the form of data from communities.
Extractivism is a mode of capitalist accumulation based on the removal of minerals, fossil fuels and agri-crops from the earth, which is often degraded and despoiled at the point of extraction. Within the logic of capitalist accumulation, such areas are deemed necessary to sacrifice to realise the economic value of their resources on the global trading markets. Often it is poor, marginalised and racialised communities, those on periphery – who become sacrifice zones. Yet extractivism often catalyses grassroots resistance and there are thousands of grassroots community campaigns powerfully contesting the destruction of their local environment.
For social researchers working with communities and movements, particularly in environmental justice struggles, it is important to consider how we can avoid replicating the extractivist logic in our research practice.
Extractivist research ‘mines’ for data from the social world in ways that obscure the researcher’s social position, deny the centrality of relationships of accountability and condemn the researched ‘other’ to objectification for presentation to external audiences. This includes an enclosure of knowledge where research is often placed behind a paywall and accessible only to a privileged view.
Following the seminal publication of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies, challenges to colonial and extractivist research practices have been advanced by First Nations scholars and activists challenging neo-colonial research practices. Alongside this, environmental justice and social movement researchers are also considering these issues.
Designing Anti-extractivist Research
How can we move beyond research extractivism as justice focused scholars working with communities and movements?
If we are researchers from outside of the community or movement we work with, we must begin by humbly listening to those who are themselves engaged in liberatory praxis and be guided by their needs and interests.
Below I set out some principles, developed through my own research praxis, which may help researchers to design anti-extractivist research alongside communities and movements:
- Reflect on our Position and Intentions
- Expand our Ethical Considerations
- Develop Deep Relational Accountability
- Balance Introspective Reflection with Building Relationships
- Make Relevant and Reciprocal Contributions
- Plan for Democratic Dissemination
Reflect on our Position and Intentions
Questions to consider include:
- How does my identity shape my research interest and my framing of a research question?
- Whose interests does this research project serve? How?
At the outset of and throughout the research process, we must understand and consider our deeply (perhaps unconsciously) held attitudes, opinions and concerns about the issues we are investigating. We must also actively consider our ‘positionality’: the visible and invisible characteristics which shape our decisions and interactions, including our age, gender presentation, race, social class, access to resources and family history.
Beyond making conscious our positionality, it is important to be clear about our intentions in conducting research. Kouritzin and Nakagawa (2018: 7) remind us that:
any researcher who is officially entitled to do research can, with the consent of the ethics review board, enter into humans’ hearts and minds, using them as research data without being asked important questions: ‘is this person fit to enter into peoples’ hearts?’, ‘Is this researcher interested in the research participants’ well-being and happiness?’ and “For who’s sake is the researcher doing research?” (emphasis added).’
Indeed, they suggest that the ‘most important question of all’ is ‘whose approval is most important to the researcher?’ If approval from the studied group or individual is not more important to the researcher than approval from the institution and other academics, then questions arise about the true emancipatory nature of the research. Similarly, Luchies (2015) offers several guiding questions (below) to foreground an ethic of anti-oppression in social movement research and support researchers to ‘engage in contextual and contingent negotiations towards reciprocal research relationships’ (p. 8). In answering these questions, he suggests, researchers should foreground a commitment to activists involved in contesting relations of oppression and a commitment to furthering intersectional resistance.
Luchies (2015) guiding questions for anti-oppressive research:
- Who owns the research project?
- Whose interest does it serve?
- Who will benefit from it?
- Who has designated its questions and framed its scope?
- Who will carry it out?
- Who will write it up?
Expand our Ethical Considerations
Questions to consider include:
- How can I build active and ongoing consent into my research?
- What would my research look like if informed by an ethic of care and love?
Communities resisting environmental injustices like extractivism often face disproportionate risks due to their political opposition to the status quo and powerful economic interests.
When researching movements, we must be aware that recording and reporting on activist activities could be of use to state and commercial interests who may use these against the community. As Flacks (2005: 7) notes, researchers with such social movements ‘ought to be sensitive to the possible ways your work could be used to perpetuate established social arrangements and repress opposition’.
This elevated risk calls scholars to deep reflection on the ethics of research design and fieldwork with communities and movements. This must begin with a critical consideration of our ethical frameworks, how we might deepen them beyond what is required by liberal institutional ethical review boards. This might include an ongoing conversation with research participants and the broader community/movement about what information to make public and what to be strategically silent about. Seeking final permission before publishing and disseminating research is also important.
Writing from a Canadian indigenous perspective, Kouritzin and Nakagawa (2018) note that institutional research ethics inculcate an ethical culture primarily concerned with a ‘one dimensional ethic’ (p. 4) of risk management and mitigation. Furthermore, they note that when data is seen as private property, ethical concern centres on contractual written consent, privacy and the ownership and storage of data. Yet, with indigenous social structure based on deep relationality which facilitates oral decision-making, consensus and accountability, written consent exchanges personal accountability for a contract. Similarly, Held (2020) emphasises that for indigenous communities, knowledge and knowing is relational and embedded in a context rather than being something objective and easily dis-embedded from context. Reflecting on ethics from this perspective encourages us as researchers to consider our deep relational accountability to the community, rather than settling for consent as a once-off act of signing a permission form.
Develop Deep Relational Accountability
Questions to consider include:
- Whose approval is most important to me as a researcher and why?
- Who am I accountable to when researching a topic?
- How do I want to “show up” in and with the community/group I am undertaking research with?
A researcher’s sustained engagement over time with a community fosters a deep relational accountability and mutuality which is central to anti-extractivist research. Milan (2014) writing as a European social movement scholar highlights how ‘bridging the significant gulf between researchers and activist groups requires a serious effort to build research relationships based on clarity, reciprocal respect and trust’.
Similarly, Gaudry (2011) proposes a model of ‘insurgent research’ with indigenous communities which binds researchers into the community through ‘webs of close personal relationship and even kinship [which] make them accountable to the community’ (p. 118).
Kouritzin and Nakagawa (2018: 10) take this further, suggesting the concept of a ‘social hostage’ which is ‘a physical manifestation of the researcher’s social and cultural capital that has been established over a lifetime’.
Researchers should make themselves accountable to research participants throughout the course of their career and lifetime, always acting to protect them from harm and enable their wellbeing.
Some Western methodologists might criticise such an approach as ‘going native’ (Bryman, 2012: 445). Indeed Held (2020) stresses that relationality ‘is a concept not easily translated into Western approaches to research’ (p. 3). Yet recognising relationality is crucial to developing an anti-extractivist research ethic. It requires us to consider how we support the emergence of knowledge which is situated in place and locally relevant, while making ourselves as researchers directly accountable to participants in the process.
This validation of local knowledge is also emphasised by Gaudry’s (2011) insurgent research, and he calls on researchers to employ indigenous worldviews in their theorizing. Similarly, Kouritzin and Nakagawa (2018) emphasise a post-human perspective that challenges the liberal humanist assumptions of dominance over the planetary ecosystem in line with indigenous worldviews.
Reciprocal relationality is central to the ethics of social movement research advocated by Milan (2014) and Luchies (2015). Milan (2014: 457) notes the importance of ‘creating connections, situating oneself in the activists’ environments and relating to their value systems’. She offers a detailed discussion of the ethical challenges involved in establishing oneself as a trusted interlocutor with activist groups, including managing relevance, risk, power and accountability.
Luchies (2015) calls for researchers to develop a triple ethic of movement relevance, anti-oppressive practice and prefiguration:
- Movement relevance calls on researchers to study questions of concern to movements and to make their research available to inform and support movement praxis.
- Anti-oppressive practice involves examining issues of power in the research process through an intersectional lens to prevent and contest relations of oppression.
- Finally, prefiguration requires researchers to contribute concrete alternatives to oppressive power hierarchies through their research practice.
Balance Introspective Reflection with Building Relationships
Questions to consider include:
- What tools, resources and practices support my reflective practice? How could these be incorporated into fieldwork?
- What processes could be put in place to create ongoing dialogue and reflection between researchers and communities/groups?
When carrying out research, the anti-extractivist researcher must engage in both introspective reflection and building relationships of mutuality in order to address the questions Milan (2015) raises of relevance, risk, power and accountability inherent in engaged research.
Reflexivity involves critical thinking and reflection on the part of the researcher that takes place through an active process of journalling and conversations with others. It requires ongoing self-awareness ‘which aids in making visible the practice and construction of knowledge within research in order to produce more accurate analyses of our research’ (Pillow, 2003: 173). But more than just providing an audit trail of our decision making, and improving the accuracy of our research, reflexivity is a key tool for addressing power/knowledge asymmetries. Milan (2015) stresses that:
reflexivity is an iterative and permanent process, and a dialogical one, transforming the researcher into the object of his [sic] own scrutiny, and potentially able to situate the researcher in horizontal relationship with the researcher.
Reflexivity can serve to address power and knowledge hierarchies because it requires us as researchers to critically reflect on the power and privilege which may be associated with our social identities and roles.
How might we be perceived and understood by others within the cultural context of our work? How might the social and cultural assumptions we are making shape our sense of self and constrain our ability to understand issues in the field? In answering these questions, reflexivity supports researchers to act with ethical integrity in the research process.
But interestingly, much decolonial literature does not have a great deal to say about reflexivity as an introspective activity of the individual researcher. Rather than stressing introspection as a task, the emphasis is on the importance of the integrity in the process (Kouritzin and Nakagawa, 2018) to develop reciprocal and trusting relationships (Held, 2020) in which the researcher is accountable to the community (Gaudry, 2011).
Implicit in this is the effective negotiation of power/knowledge asymmetries through a relational ethic of accountability. Researchers must therefore take care to ensure that reflexivity does not become solely an act of introspective ‘navel gazing’, but rather supports us to enter more fully into meaningful relationships with communities and movements.
Make Relevant and Reciprocal Contributions
Questions to consider include:
- Thinking about my existing skills beyond research, what direct and immediate benefits can I offer in service to the community/group/issue?
- How can my research generate knowledge that has collective community benefit and advances community goals and liberation?
Relevance and reciprocity are a strong ethical concern of anti-extractivist research. It is essential to ensure that our participation in people’s lives are of direct, immediate and ongoing benefit to those who are participating in our research. The issue of relevance must be considered from the outset of research design, and so begins with the researcher reflecting on our intentions in the research.
Held (2020) suggests that relevant research is based on a community-identified research need, generating knowledge relevant to the community and supporting them to advance their goals. Similarly, Gaudry’s (2011) insurgent research is distinguished by its orientation towards action that achieves self-determination and empowerment for indigenous communities. He calls for ‘a sense of responsibility towards community liberation and challenging the colonial system’. From a social movement research perspective, Luchies (2015) stresses an ethic of relevance which:
emphasizes academics’ responsibility to find [the] places in which to meaningfully contribute to movement-building. This implies mutual struggle and respect, including mutual struggle to overturn the imperatives of power/knowledge that are hostile to such relationships.
For both Gaudry (2011) and Luchies (2015), an important element of this liberatory praxis which social research may contribute to is the articulating, developing and realising meaningful alternatives to existing oppressive social structures.
As researchers it is important to ask what we bring to the community or the campaign? What value do we add above and beyond what is already happening?
We may say that we hope that our research reaches decision makers and impacts future policy-making. While this may be a benevolent aim, it remains within the extractivist paradigm where data is removed and presented to an expert audience. It does not contribute to the community’s own liberatory praxis or support those impacted by an issue to advocate for themselves.
We might also suggest that as researcher we are a cataloguer and story-teller of movement knowledge, which is indeed a worthy aim, but if this alone is our aim then we may remain detached and disengaged from the community’s campaign and fail to engage with the calls of the decolonial and social movement scholars to participate, theorise, and transform alongside the communities we work with.
Plan for Democratic Dissemination
Questions to consider include:
- How can I make my research available to those I am working with in ways that support their/our collective reflection, theorising and action?
- Are there creative ways in which I can share my research that widens its availability beyond traditional academic forums?
A final element to consider in designing and carrying out anti-extractivist research is the dissemination of our research results. How and where are we publishing our results in ways that are accessible to the community and to other communities and groups who could benefit from the knowledge?
It is also important to consider issues of ownership and control of knowledge in a time when much academic knowledge is produced to sit behind a paywall. This is an issue which has been critiqued by scholars of the commons (O’Donovan, 2014) and by those who are contributing to a “knowledge-commons” of freely available information through open access repositories or databases such as the Commons Social Change Library.
In this regard, democratic dissemination forms an important element of Luchies (2015) ethic of prefiguration.
The formats and modes of dissemination which support access to research for a wider variety of people may vary depending on the research area and the community with whom you wish to communicate. For example social movement research might be disseminated through pamphlets that can be shared through zine libraries while research with communities where oral culture is more prominent might appreciate workshop formats.
As social researchers engaged in liberatory praxis with communities and movements, we must work towards a time when oil rig operators and social scientists are governed by very different operating paradigms (and indeed a time when oil rigs are a relic of a past age).
As researchers with communities and movements engaged in grassroots struggle, guarding against extractivist research practices is an important task that can contribute to the strengthening of a social justice orientation in our work. This requires us to problematise the dominant dynamics of knowledge production in the social sciences and consciously consider how our research practices prefigure a post-extractivist world.
The design principles for anti-extractivist research which I set out come from my own praxis as a community development researcher working with an environmental justice movement. Through active reflection on my research practice, I seek to move beyond managing risk towards fostering reciprocity and a deep relational accountability in the research process. The principles paint a picture of an expanded ethics, which centre relationships, dialogue, critical reflection, mutuality and reciprocity in the shared task of freeing ourselves from injustice and ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016) of these troubling times.
This blog post is a summary of the chapter ‘Beyond Extractivism in Environmental Justice Research’ which appears in Rights and Social Justice in Research Advancing Methodologies for Social Change (Bristol University Press). In the full chapter I consider in more detail the philosophy that underpins extractivist research and use the principles below to critically reflect on my own research practice with an environmental justice campaign.
- Bryman, A. (2012) Social research methods. (4th ed.) Oxford University Press.
- Flacks, R. (2005) “The Questions of Relevance in Social Movement Studies”, in D. Croteau, W. Hoynes and C. Ryan (eds.) Rhyming hope and history: activists, academics, and social movement scholarship. University of Minnesota Press.
- Gaudry, A. P. (2011) ‘Insurgent research’, Wicazo Sa Review, 26 (1): 113 – 136. Accessed on 19 January 2024, from https://www.academia.edu/619243/Insurgent_Research.
- Haraway. D. (2016) Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
- Held, M. B. E. (2020) ‘Research ethics in decolonizing research with Inuit communities in Nunavut: the challenge of translating knowledge into action’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19: 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406920949803
- Kouritzin, S. and Nakagawa, S. (2018): ‘Toward a nonextractive research ethics for transcultural, translingual research: perspectives from the coloniser and the colonised’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2018.1427755
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- Luchies, T (2015) ‘Towards an insurrectionary power/knowledge: movement-relevance, anti-oppression, prefiguration’, Social Movement Studies, 14:5, 523-538. https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2014.998643
- Milan, S. (2014) ‘The ethics of social movement research’, in D. della Porta (ed.) Methodological Practices in Social Movement Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198719571.003.0018
- O’Donovan, O. (2014) ‘The commons, the Battle of the Book and the cracked enclosures of academic publishing’, Community Development Journal, Volume 49, Issue suppl_1, January 2014, i21–i30, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdj/bsu021.
- Pillow, W. (2003) ‘Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2): 175-196. https://doi.org/10.1080/0951839032000060635
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