The goal of modern psychology is to understand human behavior and mental processes in all forms, yet from the years 2003–07, 82% of studies reported in the top APA journals were conducted in a Western nation and nearly 78% of those studies were conducted in the United States on Western Industrialized, Educated, Rich, and Democratic (WIERD) samples (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). During the same years, 87% of all authors published in six of the top APA journals were from an English-speaking country with 74% of authors from the United States (Arnett, 2008). It is clear from these studies that one predominant form of human behavior and mental processes is represented in the current research.
These results raise a number of epistemic concerns around the goal of mainstream psychology and push cross-cultural psychological research to respond to these concerns by extending the breadth of psychological knowledge. The overarching problem with research being done almost exclusively in the West is that it excludes the possibility of the diverse ways of being a person in the world, thus, not helping to further the goal of psychology—to understand human behavior and mental processes in all its forms.
One example of how an overrepresentation of Western scientists and subjects affects the epistemic value of research comes from its “Coloniality of Being” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007). Quijano (2001) defines coloniality as the long-term power relations that emerge as a consequence of colonization. These power relations manifest themselves in a variety of ways including redefining the culture, intersubjectivity, labor, and the production of knowledge. Western researchers come from a neoliberal individualistic view of what it means to be a “self-actualized” being (being able to take full advantage of their talents while being mindful of their limitations, Maslow, 1954). Although a legitimate view, it becomes pernicious when researchers assume that this is the true way of Being. These assumptions are not always explicit; they manifest themselves implicitly in the language choice researchers make when describing another culture, in the questions that are formed in the Western mind, and in the interpretations of cross-cultural findings.
One aspect of a Western (neoliberal individualistic) worldview is the primacy of liberty (the cognitive right to control one’s own mental processes, cognitions, and consciousness). Again, liberty is but one value among others to hold primary. If another culture’s highest value is group cohesion, then liberty will certainly be manifested in a different way and perhaps be less detectable when measured quantitatively. I see this demonstrated over and over again in my peer group at Creighton University. My Latinx and indigenous friends privilege family obligation and group cohesion over education. Their personal independent right to stay in school when the family is in need falls away. Students leave to help the family. In contrast, among my white friends, school seems to be the first and foremost goal.
Coloniality of Being
Are there cultural and psychological explanations for the West’s pervasive history of the coloniality of Being? Several explanations exist. For example, a Western understanding of time may be a suspect. In the West, time is viewed directionally. There is a past, and events from the past lead to the present, and these events push to the future. Which is true to an extent, however, the unwarranted assumption is that there is a definite arrow of progress (Hawkins, 2011). The West pictures itself as the furthest along this timeline naming Western nations developed while the majority of the world is called developing.
Researches’ main goal cannot be toward conquest and progress alone. However, when data are collected and reported without examining the coloniality of Being, our assumptions paint a distorted image of what’s actually happening. If our goal is to understand what it means to be human, then basing our questions and observations through a distorted lens of coloniality of Being harms the epistemic enterprise. I love psychology and to point out the fundamental issue with Western mainstream psychology isn’t to say it is a pointless endeavor. Rather, it demonstrates the crevices that light shines through. This light allows a more holistic picture of the human condition. In fact, cultural outsiders are in the perfect position to discover crevices. Consider the following hypothetical exchange:
“That’s very interesting, why do you take hold of someone’s hand and move up and down when you meet them?”
“Do you mean shake their hand? Isn’t that what everyone is supposed to do when you meet someone? Do you not shake a person's hand when you meet them?”
“No, I’ve never seen before.”
Shaking hands when meeting someone seems natural, but that’s only the case if we don’t know a world where that set of behaviors does not exist. More complex, subtle cultural beliefs and values work through the same mechanism but are even harder to identify from the position of the coloniality of Being. Researchers from the West who work in non-Western settings find themselves in a dilemma when doing cross-cultural research. On one hand, they are in a position where they can see aspects of a culture that someone enveloped in it would never be able to see. But on the other hand, they often do not fully understand what they are looking at.
This was the dilemma that was uncovered in a course I took, taught by the second author (JB) at Creighton University in the Fall of 2019. The resolution of this dilemma was found on the fringes of mainstream psychology and implemented in a rural village in Namibia, southern Africa. By honoring the research participants as humans who own the knowledge that psychologists want to understand, we learned about the coloniality of Being and what it might take to further the goal of psychology in all its forms. Let us explain.
Our World is Bigger
Up to this point in my undergraduate education as a psychology major, I have been learning about quantitative research techniques, ones that are both simple and sophisticated, validated and, at times, tested across cultures. This course opened my eyes to new ways of knowing and new methods of acquiring information that are not quantitative. From the fringes of psychology (I say fringes because I am a senior honors student and this is my first exposure), we attempted to decolonize our research endeavor.
The class was titled Decolonizing Psychology: Love, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Africa. This course, taught in the Fall of 2019, would culminate with a 2-week experience in rural Namibia (referred to by Namibians as “the bush”). We began with trying to understand the African worldview. Knowing that methods are driven by our worldview, we read about colonization and its psychological effects in southern Africa. Then, we looked at methods derived from a decolonizing perspective. This perspective “de-centers the focus from the aims of the [non-Indigenous] researcher to the agenda of the [Indigenous] people” (Prior, 2007, p.165), notably by adopting Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and methodologies (Lipsey & Wilson, 2001; McGregor, Restoule, & Johnston, 2018).
Indigenous to southern Africa is the sharing of knowledge based in oral history and storytelling tradition (Armitage, Hart, & Weathermon, 2002; Smith, 1999; Stewart, Friesen, Keith, & Henderson, 2000) collectively, which is both an outcome and a way knowledge is obtained (Deloria, 2004). This worldview assumes that knowledge is transferred through oral history and story between people (Archibald, 2008) and that knowledge is cocreated within the relational dynamic of self-in-relation (Graveline, 1998). The relational dynamic between self, others, and nature is central.
Decolonizing What We Do
Decolonizing psychology has at least two goals. First, normalizing what has been considered deviance and, second, denaturalizing what has been held as the norm. Previous research has been done at arm’s length, establishing a real dimorphic power relationship—I gaze at you, you don’t gaze at me—unique behaviors become abnormal, deviant, archaic, and parochial. To reach these goals, decolonized methods were explored and used once we arrived in Namibia.
Glen Adams (2014) advocates for a technique called accompaniment. In accompaniment, researchers immerse themselves in the flow of community life and experience events alongside people in the context of everyday activity. Rather than ethnocentric conclusions common in research from geographical or personal distance, practices of accompaniment provide greater opportunity for researchers to understand reality from local perspectives. The point of these practices is not necessarily (or even primarily) to document patterns of behavior in other contexts. Instead, the point is to stand with people in other settings to come to a better understanding of the concept in general (Adams, 2014). Researchers begin to normalize what has been cast as deviant and slowly begin to dissolve their own cultural rigidity. By doing this, the researchers begin to acknowledge the multiplicity of modes of being in the world, and their own norms are likewise acknowledged as just one way of living; challenging the coloniality of Being.
A second strategy we used is locating the self. To locate the self, researchers share their own experiences with the participants, thus, building reciprocity, rapport, and trust (Kovach, 2010). Some approaches recommend that researchers locate and disclose their own cultural membership, and the epistemological background of the research. For example, locating oneself demands us to clarify our own worldview and honors the worldview that one can only interpret the world from one's own experience—an African belief of knowledge (Nsamenang, 2005). In Western empirical research there is a dimorphic power relationship between the researcher and participants whereas participant is a means of extracting information often without full knowledge of why the information is needed. Locating the self aims to equalize this relationship by placing the researcher and participant on more equal ground. It is important to recognize that this is different from only talking about yourself. The researcher does not dwell on their own experience at the expense of participant voices. The most important aspect of locating the self is building a relationship, treating participants more like a human and less like a data point.
The above methodologies are in no way an exhaustive list of decolonizing strategies. Smith (2012) describes 25 other strategies. Testimonies are done in a very formal setting, where an individual tells events or series of events that are extremely painful (Smith, 2012). Testimonies are formal and the audience remains heavily engaged creating a more intimate environment. A benefit is that, because these are usually done in a public setting, data collection is made easy. Further, storytelling is an oral tradition in which elders tell stories in the hope that these stories are passed onto the next generation. These stories are used to help every indigenous person to discover their place in society (Smith, 2012). Third, survivance celebrates how colonized peoples retain parts of their culture even through adversity by their resistance to colonization (Smith, 2012).
When we arrived in the north of Namibia, students began to reach out to people who they would accompany. It was slow and at times did not feel like the research I was accustomed to. There were no organized time slots or data collection sheets. Instead, there were awkward greetings and time spent trying to communicate. We accompanied Tulafeni, who crossed the border from Angola to herd cattle; Naledi, an eight-year-old girl; Mio, a teacher who went into exile in Cuba during the war; Foibe, an HIV+ activist; and Julia, a high school girl attending boarding school. I accompanied Franz. I met him on the road, and he gave us directions to a friend’s home. We started a conversation, and he told me he was on his way to play basketball and invited me to join. Each day, I would meet Franz, and we would walk to the court and play. In those hours, over days, his story emerged, slowly, step by step, shot by shot. I know about the struggles of unemployment. I know about his dreams of playing sports. He knows about my dreams of being a researcher. I know about his family constellation, from his early life in Windhoek to his high school days living with his uncle and aunt. He knows I have 10 siblings, my favorite sports and movies. I have shared meals with him, listened to his music, played on his team. I know more about how to become a man in southern Africa. I am closer to being able to form a research question that is meaningful to Franz.
I took the 40-minute walk to the basketball court and back with Franz each day. We spent hours playing and talking. I was not experiencing time the same way I do in the United States. In my conversations, people were astounded by how busy my days were. I never thought my days were busy. At the end of every day back in the United States, I could lay in bed looking up at the ceiling thinking and stressing about the small tasks I couldn’t get to. I thought back to times when I was wasting time when I could have been getting work done. Accompanying Franz made me ask myself, “Why am I in such a hurry?” My Western time-oriented way of being is only one way of being, and it is not relatable to those in the north of Namibia. I was denaturalizing the normative without trying. This might seem like a small epiphany, but it was my epiphany of the coloniality of Being. There are other ways of thinking about time, organizing your day, experiencing yourself moving through this life. Thank you, Franz, I am “woke” to it with a renewed interest in being in all its forms.
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