Decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?

For our reading group on 12th June, members of RAD.GE picked Decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?, a draft paper authored by James Esson, Richard Baxter, Patricia Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, Patricia Daley and Margaret Byron. This draft paper was written by the authors in response to the RBS-IBG Conference theme for 2017 on decolonising geographical knowledges. The Chair’s theme this year is “Decolonising geographical knowledges: opening geography out to the world”.

Why did we pick this paper?

The draft paper critiques the RGS-IBG approach to decolonisation and decoloniality. Hence it allowed for a discussion in RAD.GE on geography and decoloniality, close on the heels of an earlier discussion of Ilan Kapoor’s paper titled “Hyper-Self-Reflexive Development? Spivak on Representing the Third World ‘Other’ ” where we had an intense discussion on whether the subaltern has any space to articulate for themselves within aid and development practice. This paper was recommended to us by Angela Last from the University of Warwick and we are thankful to James Esson, the lead author on the paper, for permitting us to use this draft paper for our reading. Finally, this paper/discussion was also well suited for RAD.GE as with the RBS-IBG Conference coming up in August, it allowed the readers to critically engage with the topic.

Key Points Discussed

  • The critique is relevant and appropriate not just for Geography but for other disciplines as well. However, given how deeply embedded colonialism is, in just any form of knowledge production, how does one engage with decolonising it? If colonial production of knowledge is deep, then the counter-project should also be a long term engagement. However, RGS-IBG’s engagement seems more like a treatment of decoloniality as a ‘flavour of the month.’ Perhaps that’s exactly where the authors exasperation stems from. We acknowledged that contemporary academia generally suffers from a ‘follow the fad’ mentality, where even worthwhile or radical concepts risk being reduced to a paint-by-numbers assertion of employability.
  • Is the RGS-IBG conference flirting with radical agendas? In order to do justice to a radical project like decoloniality the commitment needs to show. The authors are demanding that kind of rigour, which is basically a demand for ‘walk the talk’.
  • Members (given that RAD.GE has members from different disciplines) were not sure how to engage with the term ‘indigeniety’. To what extent does the claims to indigeniety end up being a protectionist discourse? Does a person always need a special relationship to a place to talk about it? And, if so, how do we avoid a nasty conceptual circle between anti-racist activism and a relapse into defensive essentialism?
  • The authors may have used indigeneity  specifically referring to indigenous groups and their struggles, but it could have helped is they would have presented their understanding of ‘indigeniety’ to the reader, so that there was no need to guess what exactly was being talked about. One member pointed out that they found the emphasis on indigeneity scary, not in the intended sense of a challenge to instituted powers of privilege and domination, but as containing the spectre of nationalism. By emphasising roots to the land in an era of increased (arguably unprecedented) uprootedness, obsessing too closely on the notion of who or who is not indigenous (and who has the right to speak and identify as such) feels jarring.
  • There are specific ways of looking and interpreting the world. If we do not have filters, we end up seeing nothing. So when colonial knowledge filter goes off, how do we see the world and interpret reality? These are of course larger questions beyond the remit of the paper. However, it remained as a key question. This tied it to arguments of the paper on the need to decolonise spaces and places and not geographical knowledge alone. Given how Universities perpetuate colonial knowledge production, how does one decolonise space and place in such contexts? Do we abolish the academy? Should we all quit? (maybe).
  • Finally, a member who couldn’t attend the session wrote to us an email where he pointed out that discussions on decolonising geographical knowledge often tend to focus on the western European countries and their former colonies. However, there is a strong body of geographical scholarship that has emerged in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, where Geography as a discipline witnessed sustained support and proliferation in academy. How does these debates then translate into that context, where coloniality may mean something very different? How has Geography evolved in such contexts may give us insights into the topic, and authors may want to engage with that project to nuance their argument further.

In conclusion, it was agreed that the paper does offer a much needed critique of the upcoming RGS-IBG’s conference on decoloniality, and its seeming fashionable engagement with a radical discourse. This is highlighted by the subtitle of the chair’s session on opening geography out to the world–an embarrassing level of  grandstanding that the organisers could have done without. We also noticed (with dismay) that all of the keynote speakers at the conference this year are based at established Western institutions (though we also couldn’t help but notice that all the authors of this critique are based at universities in the south of England!).




Esson, James, Richard Baxter, Patricia Noxolo, Parvati Raghuram, Patricia Daley, and Margaret Byron. “The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality.” Draft Paper (2017)




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