Starting the conversation on decolonising fire science

Starting the conversation on decolonising fire science
Reporting from the “Decolonising Fire-Science- An Introduction” Workshop

Full report available here

by Abi Croker and Adriana Ford

Research is a political act, and the way in which we create and communicate knowledge is deeply embedded in global power dynamics, shaped by colonial legacies as well as continued colonial thinking. Our very engagement (or lack of engagement) with certain peoples, institutions, and literature, and with the real-life challenges we try to solve (or not solve), are all based on our own predilections, biases, and subjectivities, shaped by our own life experiences. Within these systems, some knowledges are reproduced and deemed acceptable by institutions, intellectuals or ‘experts’, and literary publishers, whilst other knowledges are not. Yet science is not a sacrosanct object, rather it is situated within heterogenous socio-cultural and socio-political systems made up of both empowered and disempowered individuals with particular biases. Colonial legacies and continued colonial thinking benefit an empowered minority, with social injustices and harmful impacts most deeply felt by both current, and historically, marginalised people.

Questions that guide our decolonising conversation

Decolonising research methodologies requires both acknowledgement of these systems and power-dynamics, and the impacts that they have, and taking actions towards epistemological freedom and the equal and unassumed incorporation of ‘other’ knowledges into scientific research and decision-making processes. This requires asking a number of questions about our positionalities as researchers, the assumptions, purpose and act of our research enquiries, whose voices are heard or not heard, and the ways in which our research impacts the peoples and places we are researching  (Box 1).

In April 2022, we ran a workshop ‘Decolonising Fire Science – An Introduction’  in which we invited Siseko Kumalo and Mireille Kouyo to introduce critical decolonial conversations and their importance in scientific research. Siseko Kumalo is Lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Fort Hare and University of Pretoria, teaching in the fields of Decolonisation, Social and Political Philosophy Epistemic Justice. He has published on the Black Archive and continues to do research in this area, where he is thinking about the social responsiveness of the discipline of Philosophy. Mireille Kouyo is a PhD student in the KCL African Leadership Centre and the University of Pretoria, researching the empirical reality of what local actors are doing at the grassroots level in the Côte d’Ivoire, and seeking to understand the relationships between actors in the process of building positive peace. She has run “Decolonising the Researcher” (DTR) workshops and facilitates a DTR Reading Group which seeks to create a space where researchers and practitioners discuss, reflect and consider what it means to conduct decolonial work in higher education and in their discipline. In addition to the contributions from Siseko and Mireille, three Centre members, Kapil Yadav (KCL), Dr Cathy Smith (RHUL), Professor Jay Mistry (RHUL) also shared their thoughts on colonisation and decolonisation of scientific research through their own field experiences.

The workshop aimed to create a space for researchers at Leverhulme Wildfires to think about ways in which these values can be promoted in academic and research institutions, and how we can communicate our research and knowledge in such a way that transcends ontological assumptions and our received wisdoms and subjectivities. Key messages from these conversation are summarised in Boxes 2 and 3.

One message that was repeatedly stressed was the importance of taking responsibility as researchers to transition from believing we are knowledge producers to knowledge developers to avoid reproducing colonial, extractive knowledge production systems and imparting expropriated received wisdoms. To decolonise our research methodologies, we researchers must first see ourselves as knowledge developers, as “outsiders”, rather than as “experts”, knowledge producers, or congenital “insiders”. Whereas knowledge producers assume the position of an expert, leading researched subjects to the proverbial light or pursuing a path of enlightenment that mirrors the tenets of historical colonial administrations and missionaries, knowledge developers shift the power dynamic to co-create knowledge through learning, experiences, and processes. In this way, we acknowledge diverse truths and ways of knowing, fostering, or even celebrating their entry into scientific disciplines such as the fire sciences to develop our understanding of the projects we are pursuing and processes we are seeking to explain.

Photo: Belizean forestry worker with British forester in a pine plantation. Decolonising our research requires us to understand the historical context of the place we are working. Credit: Belize Archives and Records Service

Photo: Belizean forestry worker with British forester in a pine plantation. Decolonising our research requires us to understand the historical context of the place we are working. Credit: Belize Archives and Records Service

The workshop was the first of a series of workshops focusing on decolonising research, research methodologies, and knowledge communications, organised by the Centre’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) Working Group, which aims to embed principles of equity and social justice into both the culture of the centre, and research projects and published output.

The next workshop is planned for 28th July 2022, titled Decolonising Fire Science – Critical Conversations, in which we will discuss how to develop and implement a strategic, flexible, and transdisciplinary decolonial research framework at Leverhulme Wildfires that can be applied in our scientific research and methodologies worldwide. All Centre members and Affiliates are welcome to attend.

A full report from the workshop is available here: Decolonising Fire Science – An Introduction. WORKSHOP REPORT

A recording of the workshop is available below.