Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 1

A few months ago I was asked to hold a workshop for the Trans-disciplinary group at Rhodes University. This group was started by the Institute of Water Research, Environmental Science and the Environmental Learning Research centre under a trans-disciplinary project on water security. The group has grown to include other Departments at the University. It is also attended by members of a community-based organisation called ‘Water for Dignity’.

As I was exploring what emancipation meant in learning and research I decided to present the little I knew and start a discussion about what it would mean to do emancipatory research. It was a fascinating engagement and I learnt a lot. I’ve decided to blog this interaction as it shows two things: how students and community members are thinking through these issues and, how, as novice researchers, it isn’t easy facing the fact that we live in a world defined by inequality. As researchers we and students we have a choice to make about our position in relation to our own lives and the life we want to live as active citizens and scientists in the world. I’ve not included people’s names except my own in the transcript.

It is a long piece I will blog this piece as part one and part two.

Introducing ourselves

Jane: Can you give me your name and a very short sentence about your research so I get a sense of how you fit into the whole trans-disciplinary thing. If you are part of a bigger project let me know what that is. Also add one thing about yourself that you feel the group doesn’t know, something that has meaning for you. For example if I was going to introduce myself I would say “I’m Jane. My study is on trans-disciplinarity and emancipation and I have a great interest in Tai Chi.  When I have spare time I like to practice Tai Chi both as a philosophy and as an exercise.”

My name is X. I’m a Master student in my second year of my Masters. I’m working in a larger research project called the ‘Towards a new paradigm” project that Tally Palmer is running. I’m in the Makana case study and I am working very closely with the Water for Dignity community based organisation. The study is about looking at how a citizen-based research partnership can lead to improved water service delivery in the Makana Municipality. Something that you don’t know about me maybe is that I’m a keen vegetable gardener and my cherry tomatoes are looking amazing at the moment.

I’m X. I’m doing research on a systems thinking approach and the integration of ICT’s in the local municipality. I haven’t quite figured out how my research is trans-disciplinary research but I’ll figure that out along the way. I’m not a very social man. The only time I get social is when I play soccer.

Hi I’m X. I’m doing research on land formation, perception and change and technology.

Hi I’m X. I’m working on ecological risk and working on the social aspects of it as hard science alone cannot solve the problem so we need to involve social scientists. One thing that people don’t know about me is I am a musician. I play guitar and piano. I cannot dance.

Hi I’m X. I’m from Working for Dignity where we have a citizen based research partnership. Most of our focus is on Grahamstown East where we are trying to make the community more active around basic access to water under the South African constitution. What you don’t know about me, I love fast cars.

My name is X and I’m a teacher and pastor and I have just joined Khulumani (Water for Dignity) so I am the new face. What you don’t know about me is I am a grandmother.

My name is X.  I’m a masters student at the IWR and I’m working in the Sunday’s River Valley coming out of a project that was with SANPAD and I’m looking at how access to land and water over time has impacted current use. One thing you don’t know about me is that I’m part of a group, we’ve been together since I was 12 and we sing and dance.

I’m X and I’m looking at whether a body based psychological approach has a place in dealing with water and inequality. I’m looking at the cultural relevance of training in the UK and bringing this into a South African context. You probably do know this about me, I love the sea.

My name is X. I’m looking at the management and decision making in water supply and development in South Africa and I also fit into the ‘Towards a new paradigm project’ in the Olifants river catchment. One of my main study sites is there. Something about me you don’t know, I enjoy surfing but I’m not very good at it.

I’m X. I’m in my second year of Masters. My project is linking ecological uncertainty to decision making. I think it fits into a Trans-disciplinary type of approach in that I’m trying to take the decision making from centralised authority and bringing more community based decision making into that in water resources management. We are trying ways of integrating different decision frameworks that are already out there with communities.

My name is X and I’m doing my Masters and I”m looking at an introductory approach to the introduction of government for water service delivery. Something you don’t know about me is I love to cook and I actually think I’m very good at it.

I’m X. I’m lecturing in ICT. Something you don’t know about me is I am a mother of two.

Introducing emancipation and oppression

Jane: This is a bit of a mixed session. I am going to present a bit about what my study is but mostly I see this as a place where we can explore these ideas of emancipation and trans-disciplinarity. It is quite surprising to be here again because actually Georgina Cundill, do you know her, well we were tasked to start this group by Tally. So I remember the long discussion we had at the first meeting about why we actually wanted to get together every single month and the thing that came out the most strongly was this real desire to share and learn from each other. There was a strong sense of this being a social learning space in itself – some of you have mentioned social learning. So I don’t know what it has become but it is quite nice to come back into it as PhD student and as someone who is also working as a practitioner and whose now also researching this group in a way. My study is looking at trans-discpinarity and I’m using some of your projects as case studies to see how trans-disciplinarity is emerging in practice and what are the problems and difficulties that people are struggling with.

I just want to tell you briefly why emancipation is important to me and it sort of relates to some of the things you have said. When I was 24 I came across a guy called Paulo Freire, who was an educator, and I’ll talk a bit about him today. Please stop me if something does not make sense. There was a diagram that was introduced to me when I was doing my Masters that completely changed my way of thinking about research and education. I’ve tried to find this diagram everywhere so I could share it with but I couldn’t.  It was a triangle and at the bottom there were pictures of a whole load of people with their backs bent over some of them crawling along the ground looking very sad, holding up society. These people were bearing the brunt and the weight of the entire structure of society. Then there was another layer of people who were standing upright but their backs were still bent and they were slightly happier but not much and they are still holding society on their backs. And then there was the next layer of society. A very interesting layer this group. They seemed to be standing competely upright. They were quite free. They have the movement of their bodies. Their hands are up above their heads holding up the last layer of society and interestingly enough they are looking away. They are not looking up at the top layer of society nor are they looking down at the layers of society that they are standing on. They are looking away from the pyramid/triangle all together. And right at the top of this triangle there is one guy sitting on a very fancy chair with aeroplanes flying up here that belong to him and big houses. One guy sitting at the top. This bottom layer is the layer of workers.  don’t know if any of you have ever checked out what your status needs  to be for you to be in the top five percent in South Africa. All of you here are in the top five percent of South Africa just by the very fact that you are at Rhodes University. Most of you here anyway. The majority of South African’s are down here in the bottom layer and are actually the ones that are keeping society going. They are holding the entire weight of society on their backs and yet they are the ones with the most problems and suffering the most from having to carry that weight. This bottom layer makes me think of the mines in South Africa. The next layer are people like the teachers. People that are doing jobs where their bodies are not so physically involved in those jobs.They have got enough money not to worry about certain things but it is a struggle. The third layer is made up of the intellectuals and academics, and this is what really struck me you would think this group of people would not be looking away, they would not be looking out into the distance and they wouldn’t be holding up above their heads the fat cat at the top.

This diagram represents the drive behind Paulo Freire’s theory and made me realise that as intellectuals we have an obligation, a deep obligation to not look away. In some cases, in society, it has been the intellectuals that have suddenly said ‘no ways’ and they have stepped outside the triangle and what has happened is that the level is not there and it collapses. So this diagram struck me deeply and it is what has carried me. I have been privileged enough to get an education so I sit in the third level and it is very important for me that this level is not perpetuating this triangle. So that is just to give you a little bit of a background into the big question, “What is the role of research? What is it doing in our society and what is the role of education?

You know emancipation is this wonderful idea. We want to live into an imagined world, into a world where we think that life will be better for all of us and often it is a world that we haven’t attained yet. We have not reached it. Right along side the idea of emancipation is the idea of oppression and oppression is this sense of wanting something that already exists. Often, when we feel oppressed it is because we can see that other people have something that we don’t. For example, I was listening to a talk yesterday by a Swedish lady. She was describing how the generations of women in her family had different educational opportunities. Her great-grandmother who had no education as a women, her grandmother only had three years education, her mother managed to get a masters later in life and the speaker is a PhD. So it shows that at some stage women were not allowed equal access to education in comparison to men. In South Africa we had whole races who were not allowed equal access to education so oppression for me is something that we don’t have but we see other people getting it.

Step forward, step backwards

I’d like to play a game with you and then I will present to you a few ideas about where my study is going. They are very new ideas. They are unformed so feedback would be great. After that I would like us to basically explore emancipation ourselves according to what we know about ourselves and our own research. Let’s see if we can come up with an understanding about what we are doing and how it fits into this bigger picture of having a society goal of emancipation which I think is really a goal of trans-disciplinary research.

So for this game. It is very simple. Basically the game acknowledges that we all arrive into a world that is already formed. For example, I was born in the 1970’s. I was born into apartheid. I could not choose not to be born into a country with apartheid. So we are born into the world and we are born into the way the world is. As we grow up the context that we are born into often provides us with opportunities but it can also make it more difficult for some of us. There are some people whose life circumstances have led to privilege and there are some people whose life circumstance has lead to more struggle. This is not a judgement of the individual.  It is accepting that the context that we did not choose has an impact on our lives. When we are working towards emancipation we are trying to change the contextual circumstances of people to be more equitable.

The game works like this: I read out a sentence and if it is true for you, you take either a step forward or backwards depending on the instruction that comes with the statement. If you feel uncomfortable about responding you don’t have to you can just stand still. The way it starts is that we all start with equal footing so we all start in a long line and then I will read a sentence saying step “forward if…” or “step back if. …”. You will suddenly start seeing a whole dynamic unfolding and it will shape the history of our country, it will shape the history of our gender and the history of this group. So let’s see how it goes. So we try and do this game in silence.

“Step forward if…”

We all start in a long line so you are all on equal footing to start off with.

Step forward if your family owned their own home

Step back your parents did not graduate from school

Step forward if anyone in your family is a doctor, lawyer, teacher or any other professional.

SB: If you are black, Latina, Indian, Asian, Arab, or Middle Eastern descent.

SF:If you are a man

SB:If you have ever been denied a job or paid less for comparable work or had a less qualified man promoted over you because of your gender.

SF:If you grew up with people of colour or working class people who were maids, servants, gardeners or baby-sitters in you house.

SB:If you are a survivor of incest, rape, or abuse.

SF:If you studied the history and culture of your ethnic ancestors in school.

SB:If you were raised by someone other than by both of your parents.

SF:If you have ever written a letter to influence the outcome of a political decision.

SB: If anyone in your family has had a problem with drug or alcohol abuse.

SF:If you ever worked in a job where people of a different colour held more menial jobs, were paid less or otherwise harassed or discriminated against.

SB: If you ever felt an opportunity or experience was closed to you because you didn’t know how to speak, dress, or act.

SF:If your family had more than fifty books in the house when you were growing up.

SB:If you have ever felt judged or uncomfortable because of the size, height, or shape of your body.

SF:If your family told you that you could be or do anything that you choose.

SB: If your family taught you that police were people to be feared.

SF: If you were taken to art galleries, museums, or plays by your parents.

SB:If, as a child, you were ever hungry or worried that there would not be enough food.

SF:If you ever attended a private school or went on a school outing.

SB:If your family was ever forced to move because they could not afford to pay their bills.

SF:If you grew up expecting that your family would pay for your education

SB:If you or any member of your immediate family has ever been on welfare.

SF:If you believe that police would help you in an emergency.

SB:If you or any member of your family has been incarcerated for reasons other than political activism

SF:If you ever inherited, or expect to inherit, money or property.

SB:If you have ever lived somewhere that didn’t feel safe.

SF: If you or one or both of your parents are or were members of unions.

SB:If you have ever hesitated to reveal your or your family’s religious tradition.

Now look around the room and then in silence sit down and for five minutes write down, ‘what does this mean to me about emancipation?’ You are not going to share this with anyone so write whatever comes to you.

You can finish off the sentence that you are writing. Can I ask if anyone has any comments about the exercise?

“What struck me was how different social groups had different access to power and I think the ruling elite in society and their position in society is only possible because there is an underclass. This is what keeps them in power. I was just thinking about the Russian Revolution and it was exactly like that. You had some people looking out, intellectuals, those that were below the Tsar and they were looking away using the workers at the bottom of the pyramid to get themselves to the top of the pyramid. It is two sides of the same coin really, oppression and emancipation.”

“You don’t realise it but those in power use systems to fool people. Like the ANC uses the SABC to promote itself or the newspapers. So they put out propaganda and they have these agenda’s and they sell these ideas and the working class are too busy worrying about people coming from Zimbabwe and stealing their jobs instead of questioning the government. So the media sells them what they should be thinking about and why they should be thinking about it.”

“We often catch ourselves saying ‘we are giving power’ or ‘we are teaching’ and that’s the same rather than facilitating a realisation together. This is where trans-disciplinarity comes in as you are generating multiple views without saying this is the good way to go. It is giving weight to different voices and then out of that, well that is how I see trans-disciplinary, then coming up with an agreed knowledge.”

“It can also be trans-disciplinarity bringing things together and enabling various sectors of society to understand like if you were to go to a community, say you wanted to go into decision making. But in certain communities where you have engineers and traditional leaders you need to be able to deal with different levels of understanding when dealing with different sectors of society so trying to come up with a way to help everyone understand what you are trying to do so like working with different languages.”

“Looking at the diagram I think what do we do with the million mandates? It is like looking at all these people that are carrying the weight of society but taking it to the top, to the president or whatever, it seems like all the trouble is coming from there. Those mandates they are all for the man at the top so it becomes difficult. After doing this exercise I realise there will be gaps if you look at the diagram. The big gap will be trust. If you want to build for emancipation then there is the need for trust. For the people at the bottom there is a big gap and that is access to knowledge and the translation issue. There is also the problem that the people at the bottom layer will look up at the man at the top layer and they make comparisons and see the differences and then the trust is gone. It is not just the language differences. They act differently and speak differently to them and with those differences you will not get trust. We need to shape the diagram into another form then we can work together.”

“I think through the exercise we can identify two things. There are those that are born into privilege and there are those that are born into struggle and then it is hard for those that are born into struggle to catch up. The reason is that if you are born into privilege you are not starting from the beginning. You start from somewhere very, very higher than someone that is born into struggle. So when he gets to where the privileged started from he is already tired. So can we ever achieve equality in society? I think no. We may try to work towards it but its realisation will remain out of our grasp. Then if I come back to this concept of the pyramid I think we have to view it from different lenses, the one is the political lens the other is the economic lens. One may want to say that the president sits at the top of the pile but it is economics which really put him there so politics and economics don’t care about the social justice in our society.”

“I found it a very painful exercise. It brought up a lot for me. I feel I want to say a lot of things and will let them come. So looking at it from a South African perspective and I’m aware that there are people here from other countries so it would be good to hear their sense of it and also to hear how they related to the words you used. And then what do I do with this? What do I do with this information in myself and of course it is something I have to live with all the time and we live with it in this department in terms of who is studying here and who is coming from the outside, who is administration, who cleans here etc? So for me my sense is that the supposed bottom class is actually very rich in itself potentially. But what about cleaners from Rhodes? Why can’t they be educated and learn about history and be interested in poetry for example and get access to it so that it is more than just an education institution for students which is a very privileged space to come from and to be able to study from your twenties for example. But the staff that support this institution don’t so I’m not sure if we can turn it all around and go we are re-shaping society. I don’t know if that is possible but how do we work with what we have got. So how do we speak to the cleaner here in a way that shows kindness and understanding and care for the work that is done. Because the fundamentals is we couldn’t be sitting here talking if the floor was dirty for example, if these tables hadn’t been cleaned or all the things that happen that have value so it is really about what we value. It is as if that is less and as if what we do now is more because we are thinking.”

“I will just say what came to mind about emancipation and oppression. With oppression things that came to me was cruelness, degrading and unfair, bullying and something that maybe, for me, was pushing to want to be better so that we can lift the other people up. And emancipation I thought freedom, understanding and being positive and being free. Sometimes with freedom they think they can do anything that they want to do and that for me is what creates different types of classes: higher class, middle class, low class.

“I was thinking about it. Something that came to me is that there are different types of emancipation. When I was thinking about it, my parents come from the second tier of the diagram but now I qualify to be part of the third tier and even though I am in the third tier there are things that have seeped through from the second tier like my parents made provision for me to break through into the third tier. So I think that even though I am here there are different types of emancipation, even as you go up there is still emancipation issues that you have to deal with.”

“Education is not necessarily a good thing. You can learn a lot about very little.”

Jane: Well thank you. Revisit this exercise as much as you want to. It is quite a powerful thing to look at and a lot of you have already touched on what I am going to speak about so I feel I don’t really need to say much at all. What I hoped the exercise highlighted is that the structure that we are born into is already made so often we think that if we just empower the individual then emancipation will happen but that is obviously not the case because the structure itself is faulty. The structure itself is not built on an equitable basis.

Your point about it is not just being a difference in language, it is the difference in culture and institutional cultures and the way things operate at that level. Somebody made a comment about media and the power of media and that it creates our understanding of the world and how that can limit us in being able to see our position as a free person. We can often see ourselves as an oppressed person because of the way that the media represents us. So all these things are all valid points. Your point that it is not just a societal thing it is a very personal thing that happens to us and it happens right here in our spaces. That is also very powerful and in our research it is happening all the time in all the different kinds of engagements that we are having with everybody. There are these levels of questioning:’Is this an emancipatory space that we are creating?’. Even if you are a physical scientist you are thinking about the knowledge you are creating and how that knowledge is going to be used, how is it produced? It brings up all these kinds of questions and that is really what the focus of my study is, trying to understand what those questions are and the difficulties when grappling with the questions of what makes research emancipatory. 

End of Part One

2 thoughts on “Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 1

  1. Delia

    What a powerful exercise you did with the research participants Jane! Very interesting indeed.


  2. victor

    What strikes me is how widespread the desire for emancipation is, while the understanding of – or even thinking about – what causes its absence is often very limited. why? Is it because intellectuals allow or actively create a confusion that protects the structures of injustice?


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