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WSDS21 Student Takes: SD against neocolonialism in field research

’WSDS Student Takes’ is a two-edition series in 2020 and 2021 written by alumni of the Warsaw Science Diplomacy School in the weeks and months following their completion of the program.

This article is by WSDS 2021 alumni who belonged to ’Team Heritage’, named after the historical case study of science diplomacy on which certain modules were based. Learn more about WSDS20 and WSDS21 here!

Asymmetrical relationships in research fieldwork: An ongoing challenge

By Aura Fossati, Radenka Krsmanović Whiffen, Nussaïbah B. Raja, Luisa F. Echeverría-King, Bernardo Urbani, Tereza Vizinová

Many disciplines that involve research activities by Western nationals abroad have a history of extractive practices and asymmetrical relationships between the countries involved. Collected specimens and artefacts from various parts of the world have famously enriched European and North American museums, while unfair labour conditions for local workers or exclusion of local researchers from the scientific process is still common practice. Such practices are testament to earlier colonial and imperial projects, as well as a manifestation of enduring neocolonial attitudes. During WSDS, Team Heritage explored these challenges, presented in the case study “The Workers’ Strike of 1963 at the German Excavation of Tell Chuera” by InsSciDE researcher Tobias Helms.

The variety of backgrounds in the team – hailing from across Europe, Africa and Latin America and embodying expertise in palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, primatology, physics, education and law – nourished an intense and thought-provoking exchange on how colonial legacies continue to structure the relationship between foreign researchers and local communities.

Starting with Helms’ case study, which analyzes a 1963 strike by local workers during excavations of the German Archaeological Mission in Syria, we examined actors, practices and mechanisms of past and current research fieldwork abroad and explored new opportunities to promote equitable scientific practices. We also looked at the potential for change through science diplomacy, especially in contexts where international collaborative projects can represent important instruments in foreign policy and intercultural dialogue.

Neocolonial praxis in research fieldwork
A colonial or neocolonialist nature underscores many of today’s scientific practices. The dynamic is especially evident in the power imbalances that exist in research collaborations between countries in the Global North and the Global South.

In various disciplines, countries of the Global South are effectively considered as “natural laboratories” for fieldwork. When research requires a local workforce, the organization and administration of the labour is much too often characterized by precarious conditions, underpaid wages and a lack of employment security, in many cases without a proper contract or insurance.

Local collaborators are rarely acknowledged or sufficiently credited for their contributions to Western-led research, despite a reliance on support from local institutions and personnel for the research to proceed. Furthermore, operating without the permission of national authorities or without informed consent from participants in studies remains common practice.

Another widespread form of scientific neocolonialism in academic circles is the diminished relevance of ancestral and other forms of knowledge produced by local communities. Key outputs of academic research such as knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange are also often overlooked in the relationships and interactions with local communities. This in turn generates a dependence on "specialized personnel’’ from abroad and does not help to build local capacity or expertise.

Towards fair and equitable practices
Science diplomacy, as a process for constructive dialogue and mutual understanding in international scientific collaborative frameworks, offers opportunities to coordinate best practices and establish balanced relationships. The unethical practices that persist in academia, especially those that represent a legacy of colonial times, are at the core of ongoing scientific neocolonialism. The issue is exacerbated by a lack of training and awareness of these aspects for researchers from both the Global North and the Global South.

Government strategies and policies for transnational research should highlight ethical issues, not only in their respective countries but also by their researchers abroad, such as equitable treatment and respect for the work and practices carried out by peers in other parts of the world.

Further multilateral initiatives should consider proper balance in research participation. For instance, capacity building in the host country must be an integral part of transnational scientific projects, including funding for technical training as well as ample academic access for local researchers to co-produce research outputs. Parallel to this, in order to improve scientific development in the Global South, it must be ensured that marginalised and/or historically excluded researchers are indeed involved in these projects. These policies should also promote the recognition of other approaches to knowledge generation and propose specific strategies for the articulation of those within the scientific method. Science diplomacy can open doors in this regard, creating transnational alliances that can propel fair practices in research across cultures.


14 December 2021

WSDS21 Student Takes: Asymmetrical relationships in research fieldwork: An ongoing challenge

The WSDS case study of Team Heritage: The Workers’ Strike of 1963 at the German Excavation of Tell Chuera by Tobias Helms (Watch the lecture on YouTube)

More about WSDS21:

Recordings & Overview of the Week

DAY 1 – Introductions, Open Session and Practitioners’ Panel

DAY 2 – Historical case studies of SD

DAY 3 – Tensions and Interests; Risk, Safety and Security

DAY 4 – Strategy and deliverable presentations