Why scientists should be part of conversations about decolonizing humanities

Why scientists should be part of conversations about decolonizing humanities

Cotton spun in Manchester’s textile mills was originally grown by enslaved people.Credit: SocialHistoryImages/Alamy

Decolonizing science

Nature’s careers section launched a series of articles in November 2022 looking at how institutions and disciplines in the natural sciences are seeking to make curricula and outreach activities more representative of the communities they serve. In this interview with Meghan Tinsley, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, UK, and an accompanying one with Karen Patel, a cultural researcher at Birmingham City University, UK, lessons from the humanities and sociology are explored.

My understanding of Europe and the idea of ‘the West’ — and the role of racism, empire and colonization in creating them — changed during a module that I took as part of my undergraduate degree in international relations and French. The module focused on literature from the French empire. It altered my perspective of France and the French, and the imperial violence with which the idea of France was constructed. It also highlighted subjects on which academia remains silent. Why wasn’t this a core part of my curriculum? I was eager to learn more, so I decided to do a master’s degree in race, ethnicity and postcolonial studies. And it was that degree that led me to sociology.

My PhD thesis was on British and French national identity and the memory of Muslim soldiers in the First World War. I realized that questions about empire, violence and racism are central to understanding society, but are often ignored in sociology, which emerged as a discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sociology foregrounds industrialization and urbanization, but it is often inattentive to how empire and slavery shaped these phenomena.

Getting my position at the University of Manchester, UK, in 2018 allowed me to make race, racism and empire the centre of my research in a city shaped by empire and slavery, and to make connections with other scholars and activists who share this agenda. The cotton that was spun in Manchester textile mills, for example, was grown by enslaved people.

I collaborate with colleagues here and at other universities, community historians and activists who are working to decolonize the way we teach politics, geography and social anthropology. We share course outlines, ideas and experiences in and beyond our departments, as well as the institutional constraints we face. I have met many more people who are talking about decolonization in the humanities than in the sciences.Scientists should be part of the conversation: history has taught us that it, too, isn’t objective, and that it can be and has been a tool of empire and racism. The eugenics movement, for example, was rooted in scientific racism, which was legitimized by claims that science is objective and based on biology, and led to genocidal ends.

People in the humanities should listen to what scientists have to say, and vice versa. Every discipline exists in the social world, and data enable us to substantiate claims. Scientists are very good at collecting data, although we need to be wary of data being extracted from their social context. Statistics are very important for advancing the anti-racism movement and social equality. If we didn’t have statistics on race and income, for example, or on race and public health, we couldn’t identify the social causes of inequalities in those areas and address them. But statistics can also be partial and misleading — and have been used to perpetrate racism, too.

White war graves of Muslim soldiers, with Arabic script in a First World War cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, France

Meghan Tinsley explored the memory of Muslim soldiers in the First World War as part of her PhD project.Credit: David Crossland/Alamy

I created an undergraduate module in Feburary 2023, called Decolonizing Sociology, in response to student demand. Other colleagues teach modules that address racism and ethnicity, migration and multiculturalism, social theory of the global south and race in education.

Although these modules are not compulsory, I would like for every student who gets a sociology degree here to be familiar with the concept of decolonization and with social theory outside the ideas of white, Western thinkers. I would also like for every student to see the world through the lens of not only white European sociologists, but also thinkers from minority ethnic groups and those from the global south who have participated in struggles for liberation. I’d like them to carry that awareness into their own careers, and for it to inform their activism.

I recognize that my teaching is not objective. I am a white settler who is teaching about decolonization. I make it clear when I lecture that I have a particular standpoint based on my own experiences, that I am in the midst of a learning process as well, and that my own views are changing and being challenged.

For example, when I teach about racism and ethnicity, I show students a map of my hometown in the US deep south. The map is based on US census data, and it colour codes the population by race. You can clearly see that it is deeply racially segregated.

I do this to show that I have my own history and my own background, and that the decolonial perspectives that I am sharing now are not necessarily ones that I was exposed to growing up.

We need more sociologists who are Black or are in another minority ethnic group, and also more from working-class backgrounds and from the global south. A few years ago, colleagues in my department produced a report showing that sociology is a disproportionately white discipline, especially at the higher levels of the profession. Representation needs to improve, but it also isn’t enough: diversity is not the same thing as decolonization.

Racism and colonialism are deeply engrained in educational institutions and curricula. We need to recognize that decolonization is a long process. And until there’s transformative, structural change, we will never be able to say sociology is decolonized, or that the university is decolonized.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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