Colonisation and the problem with interview as commodified data

It is easy to think that the increased attention to decolonisation is a bandwagon which feeds a neoliberal tick-box activity, and that anyway I’ve already been addressing it under the heading of deCentring. However, focusing on the concept does lead to a renewed sorting out of thinking.

Then I heard someone say that we are colonising our research participants when we use for our own purposes the data that they provide for us. 

This accusation shook me because I never thought that data was some sort of free-standing commodity that could possibly ‘belong’ to me. I have indeed felt strange the common suggestion that interview transcripts might be ‘stored’ as ‘data sets’ or used by other researchers – as though they are transportable hard data.

Critical researchers acknowledge that in interviews all involved parties are engaged in fleeting acts of positioning. Multiple factors to do with settings, the politics of labelling, feelings, relationships, shifting histories and trajectories, what happened that day, the hour before, power, status, and so on, mean that what is actually said may change from moment to moment and has much to do with the presence of the researcher. 

In this fluidity, the only thing that a researcher can ‘own’ is their own memory and interpretation of what might be going on. The ‘data’ must also include them and all their acts of positioning that deeply implicate them in whatever their interactants choose at any moment to say.

It helps me to think of the interview as another example of small culture formation on the go where all parties are encountering practices and values that cause them to position and reposition who they are.

All researchers can claim to ‘know’ is that the event took place, what sorts of things were said on both sides and what they think about it.  

This is why it seems to me superficial when data sections or chapters uncritically offer extracts of transcripts as examples of what interviewees ‘think’ or ‘believe’ with no laying bare of the politics of how the transcripts came to be. Even when they claim decoloniality or post-structuralism in the opening sections.

Returning to the question of stealing data, I think that it is indeed colonising if researchers presume that what interviewees says is a commodity that can be carried away and stored for use elsewhere. One gets this sense of plunder when researchers refer to it as ‘my data’. 

I begin therefore to feel that decoloniality can only begin to be achieved if there is a full discussion of the politics of the presence of the researcher and the intersubjectivity and positionings of all present parties. 

This also has something to do with the location of relationality. My recent reading of decolonisation theory tells me that the colonising position, following Orientalism and essentialist theories of the intercultural, maintains that the so-labelled Western, individualist, rational and objective researcher imagines themselves independent of the so-labelled relational, collectivist, irrational non-Western subject. It is this fallacy that falsely but powerfully enables brute positivism. 

Researchers everywhere must not therefore be taken in by what just appears to be objectivist rigour.

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