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Priorities for decolonising social sciences and law: an interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

What are the priorities for decolonising social sciences and law?
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I wonder if you could perhaps reflect on some key priorities for decolonizing law and social sciences. It’s a very important question, because we need precision. And I hope that you and your students deal with it. Are we in a period of decolonizing or a period of recolonizing? I think that many debates today in the world, in Europe and outside Europe, as I move from Latin America to North America, to Africa and Asia, I can see that reactionary ideas– the defence of colonialism– is coming to the fore again. I mean, it’s not just this article by Bruce Gilley on the defence of colonialism in the Third World Quarterly.
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It’s a much broader movement of white supremacism, for instance, in the United States, of the recolonization of the mind. In a recent book that we published, on the knowledges born in struggle, our colleague from India writes a beautiful piece on recolonizing the Indian mind. So the idea of the consultancy firms are not just university, are recolonizing. That is to say, degrading all the Indian forms of knowledge, and bringing in the Western knowledge of new kinds after historical colonialism. That’s so important that we distinguish between historical and current colonialism. Different forms, but ever, always colonialism. Because, as I say, there will be not possible to have capitalism without colonialism and patriarchy.
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So I think that we are to be very determined to get our priorities of decolonizing, precisely because it’s a countercurrent. Because sometimes we have some victories. And we know that, in Britain, you know, when the statues go down, with different things. It’s a victory, and a real victory, but we have to see that the broader context in which all this occurring is a different thing. It very much goes into the sense of recolonizing, not decolonizing. Therefore, I think that, for instance, one dimension of these priorities of the recolonizing and the struggle against recolonizing is the ranking among universities.
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I mean, capitalism at the university level, means basically, among many other things, the idea that the knowledge should have a price tag. That it’s valuable, knowledge. It’s knowledge that has a market value. That’s new. For a long time, the value of knowledge was an autonomous value. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, that was the value. Now, more and more, at our universities, they have a market value. The market value is capitalist, that therefore, brings with it, also, the colonial issue and patriarcal issue. That’s what we talk about recolonizing the mind.
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When we have the capitalism at the university, we see rankings of universities. All of a sudden, the only developed global universities are located basically in Europe or in the United States. In the North the, global North. All the other universities of the global South are very low placed in these rankings. This is very detrimental to these universities, because now is their value is a kind of a quantitative value, quantitative dimension. But tomorrow, if we are going to buy and sell courses in sociology, and education, and engineer, the price tag upon these courses depends on the ranking of the university, right? But we are also attaching price tags on our professors.
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I mean, with all the output, fancy that we are, the publish or perish. And not just publish or perish, but the nature of publications. I mean, in non-English-speaking world, which is by far the majority of the world, professors at the faculty are being forced to publish in English. And in fact, in journals, most of them, some 90%, are a property of two or three firms also located in the North. So this makes it almost impossible for professors, sometimes, to publish in their own language, the language of their own countries, for which they are responsible for the populations or the struggles and aspirations of those peoples.
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So I think that we have here the priority of decolonizing is to fight against capitalism at university. So you see my conception of capitalism articulated with colonialism and patriarchy, means that we have to fight at these broad levels. The priorities in the global North is precisely to fight against capitalism, and of course, to bring in the ecologies of knowledges inside our universities. I think the most advanced forms that I have in my studies and my research in different parts of the world is that we see today. For instance, universities, even schools of law, that are very much concerned with the ecologies of legal knowledges.
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In which they teach the Western-centric knowledge about the law, but they also teach other kinds of law, for instance. Ecologies of medical knowledges, the idea that there are other medicines other than the biomedical, Euro-centric type of medicine. Because if some medicine is good for acute situations, other medicines, traditional medicines, are very good for chronic situations and conditions. So I think that you have to include these ecologies– this decolonization of knowledge. The curriculum– we have to bring in not only the affirmative actions with the students and faculty, but also the curriculum, the pedagogy. And then, there is another priority, to which there is not much attention in the global North.
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Because the global university of the North, in the Northern universities are very much concerned with networking. In Europe, for this, it’s very clear. And then they have a kind of a paternalistic type of attitude vis-a-vis the universities of the global South. I think that is very important for us, those that are located in the global North, to have non-capitalist, non-colonialist, and non-patriarchal relationships with universities in the South. That is to say, our universities should build other types of cooperation with universities in the South, to bring in professors from the South, to try to learn from them.
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Those, of course, that are not just reproducing the universities of the North, because as you know very well, because I know you know my work. The North for me is not geographic, it’s epistemic. So in the South, we have lots of North-centric universities by the white elites in Africa or in Latin America. But bring in this type of cooperation. And South-South cooperation. This is a new movement, to which I would like to draw your attention, is the cooperation that is being developed among universities of the global South, from Africa, for instance, and Latin America. This is very interesting, because they are pleading, and they are already putting into practise alternative ways of evaluating faculty.
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Not using the criterion, the output, the deliverables to which we are subject in our criteria for our promotions in the North. But they are coming in with alternative concepts, that, for instance, include for your promotion the social responsibility in your work vis-a-vis community. That is to say, extension work. The time that you work in the community outside university counts as university time fully. So this is a new understanding that I think that we have to engage in. And I say that it’s not just about knowledge, it’s about pedagogy. I think it’s the difference is that our priorities should have a different type of classroom, a different type of environment in the classroom.
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Probably, some of our classrooms should be in our campus, of course, but we should have our classrooms at large, outside university more and more. And they are many. I think that Europe should learn a lot from some experiments in the South, in which sometimes– now, with the pandemic, makes it that more difficult– but there is some very interesting experiment of taking the class to the indigenous community, or the black community, or the marginal urban communities, in which the students actually live, and to try to work with them in their own environment. And the pedagogical process is completely different. All of a sudden, the students learn better, learn more, and probably, the professors also learn something of reality of the world.
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So I think that it’s very difficult. And my final note on this is that, if we advance, that could be in another occasion to develop, but it is very important to distinguish between urgent tasks and important tasks. Because sometimes this difference is not made by administrator and by professors, and it is very important. Sometimes, in a given context, it’s very urgent. Certain struggle becomes very urgent. For instance, there is a movement against the statues, for instance. It’s very urgent at that point to engage with that struggle. That does not mean that is the most important struggle, because we then can think that, since we brought down this statue, the curriculum is already OK, and everything is OK. No.
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The urgent struggle to deal with conjuncture. The important struggle to deal with the structure. So we have to make this distinction. Really, really fascinating. Thank you for that. Very thoughtful. Very, very welcome. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Here Professor de Sousa Santos reflects on overall priorities for decolonising social sciences and law.

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