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Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue
canadienne d'études du développement
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcjd20
Why positionalities matter: reflections on power,
hierarchy, and knowledges in “development”
Arda Bilgen , Aftab Nasir & Julia Schöneberg
To cite this article: Arda Bilgen , Aftab Nasir & Julia Schöneberg (2021): Why positionalities
matter: reflections on power, hierarchy, and knowledges in “development” research, Canadian
Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d'études du développement
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02255189.2021.1871593
Published online: 18 Jan 2021.
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Why positionalities matter: reﬂections on power, hierarchy,
and knowledges in “development”research
, Aftab Nasir
and Julia Schöneberg
Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University, Worcester, MA,
Department of Sociology, Forman Christian College University, Lahore, Pakistan;
Development and Postcolonial Studies, University of Kassel, Kassel, Germany
Despite more than two decades of critical scholarly engagement,
“development”is far from shedding its hierarchical, patriarchal,
and colonial underpinnings. In academic research and teaching,
power relations are continuously perpetuated –both implicitly
and explicitly. Grounding our arguments on post- and decolonial
critiques and our own experiences, we contend that how, why,
and by whom “development”research is carried out must remain
under constant scrutiny. We propose a reﬂexive and socio-
politically conscious approach of “knowledge co-construction”.
Thus, we seek to decouple the myths of objective production of
knowledge around “development”and provide (especially)
students and early career researchers with a critical gaze.
En dépit de plus de vingt ans d’engagement académique et
critique, la discipline du « développement » est encore loin de
s’être défait de ses fondements hiérarchiques, patriarcaux et
coloniaux. Dans la recherche et l’enseignement académiques, les
rapports de pouvoir sont sans cesse perpétuées –de façon
implicite et explicite. Basant notre argument sur une critique
post-coloniale et décoloniale, ainsi que sur nos expériences
personnelles, nous postulons que les stratégies, les motifs, et les
acteurs de la recherche sur le « développement » doivent
toujours être mis à l’épreuve et réévalués. Nous proposons une
approche réﬂexive, qui prend en compte les facteurs socio-
politiques de la « co-construction du savoir ». Pour ce faire, notre
objectif est de dissocier la discipline du « développement » du
mythe d’une production de savoir objective, et d’oﬀrir un regard
critique sur la situation, plus particulièrement pour les étudiants
et les chercheurs en début de carrière.
Received 7 April 2020
Accepted 11 December 2020
Once upon a time, an old man used to travel between two countries on a donkey. The guards
at the border control thought that he was a smuggler, so they always checked him carefully
for any smuggling goods. Every time they searched him from head to toe, but could not ﬁnd
anything on him. This became a routine and the guards started getting frustrated upon
ﬁnding nothing on him week after week. After almost six months of thorough checking, agi-
tation, and curiosity, they gave up and explained the whole scenario to the old man. They
© 2021 Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID)
CONTACT Arda Bilgen firstname.lastname@example.org
CANADIAN JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
REVUE CANADIENNE D’ÉTUDES DU DÉVELOPPEMENT
asked him if he actually smuggled goods, and how he managed to do it. The old man listened
to them carefully, and then told them his secret. He explained that what he smuggled had
always been right in front of them, but they could not see. He asked them if they had
ever noticed that he always travelled with a diﬀerent donkey every week. It was these
donkeys that he smuggled. This was his secret. (A tale from the Middle East)
The year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary not only of Power of Development by Jonathan
Crush (1995), one of the most powerful (edited) books that has challenged the power
structures embedded in “development”
thinking and practice, but also of Encountering
Development by Arturo Escobar (1995), a seminal work on the production of knowledge
and power in the ﬁeld of “development”. Since 1995, and indeed before, there has been a
growing concern with examining the linkages between “development”and power as well
as the discursive, non-material dimensions of “development”(see Escobar 1995; Fergu-
son 1994; Hall 1992; Kothari and Minogue 2002;Li2007; Matthews 2004; McGregor
2009; Petras 2003; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997; Rist 1997; Sachs 1992; Ziai 2016). Critical
approaches that challenge the dominant “development”thinking, such as post-develop-
ment, post-colonialism, and anti-development perspectives, have become more popular
and acceptable, even in the curricula of mainstream research and education institutions
in Western Europe and North America. These approaches, or at least some of their key
components, have found a greater place in the syllabi of more and more undergraduate-
and graduate-level courses on “development”, resulting in a rise in the number of
master’s and PhD theses written through the lens of the power-development nexus.
Similar changes can be observed in the practice of “development”as well. Once con-
sidered innovative and progressive for acknowledging the power relations between pro-
viders and recipients of “development”, concepts such as “alternative development”and
buzzwords like “participation”or “empowerment”have become incorporated into the
mainstream. Practically, however, asymmetrical power relations within and among the
actors and supposed beneﬁciaries of “development”remain dominant. “Development”
as a concept, a practice, and a ﬁeld of study is far from having shed its hierarchical, patri-
archal, and colonial underpinnings.
In this article, we focus on the question as to why, despite all the reform, repackaging,
and rebranding of “development”, the power asymmetries and inequalities that trouble
the subject continue to prevail. We focus speciﬁcally on the workings of power in “devel-
opment”research. Drawing on post- and decolonial critiques, we argue that reﬂexivity in
research processes can serve as a tool to dismantle embedded power hierarchies. In a
reﬂexive manner, we are grounding our argument on personal research and practical
experiences, ﬁrst as PhD students at a university-aﬃliated think tank in Germany, and
later on as lecturers and researchers at universities in Germany, Pakistan, and the
United States (US). We contend that the dominant forms of knowledge production,
which itself is a contested term, should be problematised in every context. Relatedly,
we maintain that who researches “development”how, why, where, and when must be
constantly questioned. We assert that research that overlooks the power dynamics in
“development”must be replaced with a power-sensitive and socio-politically conscious
2A. BILGEN ET AL.
approach of “knowledge co-construction”, which acknowledges, engages, and draws on
non-hierarchical ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies.
In addition to taking reﬂexivity as our guiding principle, we take a discursive approach
in what follows. Discourses can serve as powerful tools of practice. Inevitably, the use and
repetition of a certain language inﬂuences the frames of theory, policy, and practice of
“development”(Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013). The common practice of writing about the
theory of power inequalities dictates that we tackle this question with more theory,
but this is what we position ourselves against. This, however, does not mandate us to
invent the wheel anew either. The most obvious answer to this question comes from
the decolonial literature (Bhabha 2012; Fanon 1995) that contests the phenomenon of
white colonial gaze. Through experiential data, we ﬁnd that the white colonial gaze not
only works in discourse, but also imprints itself on the bodies of the researcher.
As “development”researchers, we do not claim to speak for the whole of our pro-
fession. We acknowledge that our analyses are inevitably subjective, shaped by our posi-
tionalities in terms of race, gender, class, education, and upbringing in three very
diﬀerent social, geographical, and political contexts. However, despite of, or maybe
even because of, this subjectivity, we believe that our experiences and struggles relate
to that of many of our colleagues. We purposefully do not suggest a universally applicable
solution. The tendency to ﬁt all the intricate, even contradictory human experiences
under the same umbrella as well as to universalise the concepts, words, and ideas is
exactly the problem with the way knowledge (about “development”) is produced.
Instead, by using our subjective lens, we aim to contribute towards pluriversal dialogues
and decouple the myths of neutral and objective production of knowledge of and around
Below, we frame our understanding of the concept of “development”. Following this,
without limiting our analysis to the critique of a single institution or a university struc-
ture in a speciﬁc country, we discuss the details of how we have been instructed to
research “development”and unearth the underlying discourses of power dynamics
that end up producing and perpetuating its practices. Here, the consciousness of
entangled positionalities is central to what we think can be done diﬀerently in order to
make the production of “development”knowledge symmetrical and, eventually, pluriver-
sal. We conclude by emphasising that any research on “development”must inevitably be
a re-search of power.
“Development”: a powerful discourse
“Development”is a highly contested term. As a ﬁeld of study, it seeks to understand and
explain the interconnections of global, national, regional, and local processes of change
within social, political, economic, technological, cultural, environmental, and gendered
spheres (EADI 2017). It is a multi-, inter- or even trans-disciplinary ﬁeld that incorpor-
ates a wide array of disciplines that range from economics, to engineering, political
science, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. As a practice, it refers to an inﬁnite
number of actions and processes: infrastructure construction, economic growth,
women’s empowerment, institution building, and many more. As an arena of policy,
“development”seeks to save whole continents (e.g. Africa), regions (e.g. Southeast
Asia), countries (e.g. Malawi) from poverty and transform whole societies (e.g. from
CJDS / LA REVUE 3
traditional to modern social organisations), communities (e.g. from “passive”subjects to
“active”agents of change), and people (e.g. from consumers to entrepreneurs). The mul-
tiplicity of references attributed to “development”has made the concept an amoeba-like
term (Esteva 1992), an empty signiﬁer shaped according to the most vocal and powerful
voices (Ziai 2009).
The implications of such understandings and policies are so powerful that states and
international institutions have placed a broad array of diagnoses, prescriptions, practices,
and projects under the umbrella of “development”, as materialised in the United Nations
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Despite its obvious failings and detrimental
social and environmental impacts, “development”continues to be considered norma-
tively good and universally desirable. Any negative implications are explained with meth-
odological shortcomings that require technical ﬁxes rather than fundamental
epistemological contestation or political debate. The assumption is that interventions
simply need to be carried out more eﬀective, inclusive, just, participatory, and sustainable
to work. Not less, but more “development”in diﬀerent guises is oﬀered as a remedy for
policy failures and shortcomings.
Post- and decolonial scholarship has contested such normative assumptions of “devel-
opment”, exposing the colonial legacy and continuity of “development”. Post- and deco-
lonial critique uncovers the power structures inherent in the production of knowledges
and the control of peoples, places, and spaces that are all measured against the yardstick
of European modernity (Dabashi 2015; Kothari 2006; Pailey 2019; Ziai 2016). “Develop-
ment”is deconstructed as a discourse of hegemony that legitimises the control of the
West over “the Rest”, establishing binary divides of modern vs. traditional, developed
vs. underdeveloped that stand in immediate colonial continuation of civilised vs. unciv-
ilised dichotomies (Escobar 1995). Arguably for this reason, “development”inevitably
requires intervention into people’s lives regardless of whether they agree or not with
the instructions and prescriptions provided to them. Since state oﬃcials and inter-
national and national “development”experts speak from a position of power, their rela-
tional capacity to negotiate and enforce has not been equal, but superior to, the
beneﬁciaries of “development”. Despite the introduction of participation in “develop-
ment”, the idea that the push for change has to come exogenously persists, cementing
a binary worldview that locates problems in one half the world, and solutions in the
The most inﬂuential “development”thinking remains within the contours of neoclas-
sical economics and major tenets of modernisation theories (Kothari and Minogue 2002,
7). In its mainstream discourse, “development”thinking is a continuist paradigm that
believes in the linearity of relationships among concepts, institutions, states, and
similar entities. It leaves no room for breaks, cracks or ﬁssures thereof (Rockhill
2017). It does not take into account the tumultuous nature of the social reality that
does not necessarily follow neatly carved pathways, but rather takes many unbeknownst
turns, thereby making the processes of predictions all the more diﬃcult, albeit irrelevant.
In order to run a smoother ﬂow, the practice of “development”follows teleological and
deterministic approaches that take refuge in centralised, universalising, and homogenis-
ing tendencies. While these practices are developed in speciﬁc socio-historic contexts,
their universalising nature necessitates that they are to be implemented across various
socio-cultural backgrounds in a standardised manner. The diﬀerences, divergences,
4A. BILGEN ET AL.
and ﬂuidities thus become too chaotic, irrational, and uncertain to control; therefore,
they are factored out of the “equations”of “development”.
In terms of methodology, “development”research draws on various approaches that
range from “inductive methods grounded in the observation of ﬁeld reality to deductive
approaches that test theory-based models empirically”(EADI 2017). For years, the
approaches inspired by positivism have emphasised the cruciality of staying neutral
and impartial in any kind of scientiﬁc inquiry in order to produce universally acceptable
knowledge. Researchers are expected to make a clear separation not only between their
“normal”and “researcher”selves, but also between themselves and their research partici-
pants. As if in a controlled experiment in a laboratory, they are expected to leave behind
their identities, beliefs, and values even when dealing with sensitive issues with strong
political and social ramiﬁcations such as global poverty or systemic inequality. The per-
sonal biographies of researchers are perceived as obstacles against ensuring objectivity
and hence quality research (England 1994, 242). For “development”researchers,
however, engaging in reﬂexivity to unearth the grids of positional power relations is par-
ticularly critical because “we cannot remove ourselves from the machinations of power
and authority that are articulated by the projects of colonialism and/or development
as a whole”(Kothari 2006, 134). This inevitable interwovenness is often pushed aside
through claims of objectivity in the mechanisms of knowledge construction. This is
where the inherent nature of human experience and complex mixture of all socio-histori-
cal, cultural, and political forces manifests itself. We explore this in-betweenness, posi-
tionality, further in the next section.
Reﬂections on positionality
In recent decades, an increasing number of qualitative researchers, from critical, feminist,
post-structural, and postmodern perspectives, have challenged the idea of excluding the
self from research and employed reﬂexivity as a methodological tool in their works
(Pillow 2003, 176). Reﬂexivity can be simply deﬁned as “self-critical sympathetic intro-
spection and the self-conscious analytical scrutiny of the self as researcher”(England
1994, 244, emphasis original). By taking a reﬂexive stance, researchers acknowledge
their positionalities and how their characteristics “aﬀect both substantive and practical
aspects of the research process –from the nature of questions that are asked, through
data collection, analysis and writing, to how ﬁndings are received”(Carling, Erdal, and
Ezzati 2014, 37). They become aware of what kind of roles their multiple positionalities
in terms of their age, class, ethnicity, gender, language, marital status, nationality, par-
ental status, profession, and religious beliefs play throughout the research process
(Ergun and Erdemir 2010,18–19). Thus, they become sensible of the risk of constructing
or reinforcing hierarchical power relations in the research setting (Bott 2010, 159–160).
As Farhana Sultana states, being reﬂexive about their positionality allows researchers to
see where they are located in the “grids of power relations and how that inﬂuences
methods, interpretations, and knowledge production”(2007, 376).
The positionality of a researcher is more of a political problem than a technical one.
According to Stuart Hall, “[t]here’s no enunciation without positionality. You have to
position yourself somewhere in order to say anything at all”(1990, 18). In ethnographic
research, the position of a researcher has been traditionally reduced to being either an
CJDS / LA REVUE 5
insider or an outsider. In this dichotomy, insiders are seen as those who study a group
with whom they share similar racial, ethnic, language, and gender characteristics
whereas outsiders are those who study a group to whom they do not belong ethnically,
culturally or socioeconomically (Mullings 1999, 340). Generally, insiders are assumed to
have easier access to, and larger understanding of, the culture being studied. In a reverse
logic, outsiders are believed to have greater interest in learning about the unfamiliar and
more “objectivity”in the eyes of research participants (Merriam et al. 2001, 411). As each
position is praised for allowing researchers to collect more reliable data, the pros of one
position can be seen as the cons of the other position. Recently, though, critical
approaches have increasingly acknowledged that the “insiderness”or “outsiderness”of
researchers is not ﬁxed and frozen, but rather ﬂuid and context-dependent. Accordingly,
there is no guarantee that researchers will be treated as insiders in their own communities
or as outsiders in an unfamiliar setting based solely on their characteristics (Ergun and
Erdemir 2010, 34; Kusow 2003, 593). In other words, researchers can be insiders, outsi-
ders, both or neither simultaneously (see Breen 2007; Mullings 1999; Sultana 2007; Till
At this point, we would like to reﬂect on our journeys through “development”
research. We were in the same cohort in the same interdisciplinary doctoral programme
of a university-aﬃliated research centre in Germany. From outside, we three were
similar. We were just any three PhD students in the group of students who came to
our institution from all over the world to study “development”. When looked closely,
however, we had signiﬁcant diﬀerences that shaped our identities and made us who
we really were in addition to being PhD students.
Arda is a male from Turkey, Aftab is a male from Pakistan, and Julia is a female from
Germany. We grew up in diﬀerent countries that could be labelled as developed, devel-
oping, and underdeveloped according to oversimpliﬁed classiﬁcations. We come from
families that can be categorised as upper-middle, middle, and lower-middle classes in
the contexts of our home countries. Related to this, the power of our passports, which
have a signiﬁcant inﬂuence on conference participation and academic mobility, diﬀer
disproportionally. Under the same circumstances, German, Turkish, and Pakistani citi-
zens are allowed to visit 189, 111, and 32 countries without a visa, respectively (Henley
and Partners 2020). Our educational backgrounds and research interests widely diﬀer as
well. Arda holds a BA in International Relations and an MA in International Aﬀairs/
International Security Studies. He has focused on the dynamics of technicisation and
depoliticisation in “development”in his PhD dissertation. Aftab holds BA and MPhil
degrees in Psychology, and has concentrated on the role and psycho-social impacts of
language in “development”in his PhD work. Julia holds a BA in Socio-Economics and
an MA in Peace Studies. She has worked on the mechanisms and implications of “devel-
opment”partnerships in her PhD project.
Even though “ﬁeld research”is a problematic concept with many postcolonial impli-
cations, it is an essential part in almost all PhD programmes in “development”studies.
Our programme was no exception in this regard. As in many other research programmes
in Western Europe and North America, students were given green light to do their ﬁeld
research only after they passed a complex of interdisciplinary and disciplinary course-
work, exams, and research proposal presentations as well as received ethical clearance
from the research ethics committee. Arda would do his ﬁeld research in his home
6A. BILGEN ET AL.
country Turkey. Aftab would do the same in his home country Pakistan. Julia, however,
would not do her ﬁeldwork in her home country Germany. Instead, she would go to
Haiti. This was not a single case, but rather an unspoken rule of the institution: students
from the global South were expected to research their own or other global South
countries while students from the global North had the liberty to choose any (non-
global North) country they would conduct research about. For this reason, most of
our Western European friends, including Julia, did their research on African, Asian,
and Latin American countries, mainly without prior knowledge of, or connection
with, the respective countries. After all, they would be accompanied by research assist-
ants, translators, and gatekeepers to make up for this lack. In other words, while students
from the global South were expected to go to their native countries for their “insider”
positions, students from the “developed”world were expected, even encouraged to go
to the global South for their “outsider”positions (see Ziai 2020, 244 for a similar critique).
For us, this (not so) small diﬀerence was one early sign of the dichotomous thinking that
separated the West and the Rest, making the underdevelopment of the latter a research
topic for the former in a problematic way. It prompted us to reﬂect on the entanglements
of relationality and positionality as well as on the questions of knowledge production and
the authority of diﬀerent knowledges.
Asymmetries of power became even more obvious to us when we started to learn more
about the workings of North–South research collaborations or “partnerships”, especially
in the European research landscape. Despite the egalitarian connotations of the word
“partnership”, it was the northern partner who had the power to set the agenda for
research and decided whether to provide ﬁnances for research projects, which had to
be designed in the way northern partners wanted southern partners to design them
(Grieve and Mitchell 2020, 515). In most partnerships, principal investigators were pre-
dominantly northern-based academics controlling disproportionate amounts of
resources in terms of access to funds and knowledge regarded as “legitimate”(Gunase-
kara 2020, 504). Their collaborators, on the other hand, often lacked such resources.
For this reason, they were conﬁned to the position of research “beneﬁciaries”or assistants
instead of being seen as legitimate voices in the production of knowledges. Researchers
from the North travelled to the South to “mine”data in a setting where they assumed the
tasks of research design, analysis, writing, and publishing whereas their southern partners
acted like “data mules”who “gather[ed] data that [was] deemed relevant by people who
[might] not (for the most part) be too familiar with the physical, political and cultural
space in which the research [was] conducted”(Gunasekara 2020, 505). In a way, these
outsider researchers were “parachuting”into a community, spending some time
within that community, and disappearing forever once the data needed was collected
(Breen 2007, 163). Also, research grants were going mostly to the same small number
of elite institutions with strong and extensive networks and a cadre of western-educated
researchers, creating new exclusions in diﬀerent forms (White 2020,492). Such factors
were indeed giving research a function of “extraction”and creating a hierarchy of knowl-
Just as many other research programmes in “development”studies, our PhD pro-
gramme also aimed at producing “development experts”who would return to their
native countries with the necessary skills and knowledge to increase the depth and
breadth of North–South development cooperation. Even though all three of us were
CJDS / LA REVUE 7
lucky to have supervisors and tutors who encouraged us to critically contest and chal-
lenge the very idea of development, in general there was more interest in exploring ques-
tions such as: How can “development”be made more eﬃcient? How should
“development”be better evaluated? What technical or social ﬁxes are necessary and ima-
ginable? More critical reﬂections on how, why, and where “development”theories and
concepts were invented and spread across the world were usually frowned upon. Simi-
larly, although strongly encouraged by some researchers including our supervisors and
tutors, reﬂecting on our positionalities in our works was largely seen as a formality.
Obviously our “personal stuﬀ”did not have a theoretical signiﬁcance or global reach.
For that, we had to refer to Michel Foucault’s power analysis, Pierre Bourdieu’s
habitus, Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, or similar “universally accepted”concepts
invented by big names, most of whom were white males from the West. Even though
this “stuﬀ”was deemed irrelevant or found “unscientiﬁc”, it was in fact an essential
part of our work. It contained and revealed delicate information on how our positional-
ity, particularly the Western and/or colonial “baggage”we carried due to either being
from the West or having been educated in the West, in fact shaped diﬀerent aspects of
our research processes. The examples below illustrate this point better.
Between 2013 and 2014, Arda collected data about Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia
Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP), one of the most comprehensive regional
“development”projects implemented in the world (see Bilgen 2018b). His research
was considered sensitive for two major reasons. First, perceived or real, there was a
link between GAP and Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish conﬂict, which led to the
killing of more than 40,000 people and displacement of more than a million (Bilgen
2018a). Secondly, in Turkey, the “[w]orks that challenge the oﬃcial state narratives on
the issues like Kurdish, Cyprus, Armenian problems are seen as dangerous ﬁelds
where one is discouraged from working”(Alpman 2018,85). In order to better under-
stand the project’s characteristics, rationales, and mechanisms in light of a depoliticisa-
tion framework, he conducted elite-level interviews with dozens of politicians,
bureaucrats, and experts in Ankara and Şanlıurfa. Initially, he naively thought that he
was an “insider”and his “insiderness”would make the research process less complicated.
However, it did not take long for him to realise that coming to Turkey to complete
ﬁeldwork was quite diﬀerent than coming “home”(see Sultana 2007; Till 2001). One sig-
niﬁcant factor for this disappointment turned out to be his aﬃliation with the West, both
within and outside Turkey. As someone born, raised, and socialised in the urban settings
of western and southern Turkey, his “insider”position reached its limits in the country’s
predominantly Kurdish and socioeconomically challenged southeast. He was found “too
Turkish”to understand the lived political and social realities of the Kurds. He was “not
Kurdish enough”to see through their eyes the Kurdish region. As a Western Turk, he was
not just a researcher, but a symbolic representative of the sovereign that carried
unfavourable connotations due to the past (and ongoing) practices associated with the
politics of denial, oppression, and assimilation (see Bilgen 2018a, 101–101). As
someone who had the chance and privilege to be educated at an English-speaking
high school and university in Turkey and later on in the US and Germany, his “insider-
ness”reached other limits in his conversations with the Turks too. This time, he was
found “too foreign”or “not Turkish enough”to understand the development policies
of diﬀerent political parties or the project-related viewpoints of various bureaucratic
8A. BILGEN ET AL.
bodies, agencies, and departments. It was unfortunate that most of the interviewees
thought of him as a “mouthpiece”of the West due to the political context where
western countries were seen as the “dark foreign powers”aiming to weaken and
divide Turkey. Numerous times he was asked why he “really”came all the way from
“there”to “here”, and was advised to make sure his research serve the interests of the
Turkish state, not its “enemies”. In the midst of such implications, it required painstaking
patience to maintain the role of a reliable researcher and avoid “biting the hand that fed
him”(Adams 1999, 353). In other words, the negative connotations of the West in the
eyes of the elites at a national level, and of laypersons at a local level, led to sudden
changes and ﬂuidities in identities and power relations during the research process.
For this reason, he spent so much energy on constantly negotiating his positionality –
insider, outsider, or both depending on the context –to deal with the asymmetries of
power, which were sometimes in, and sometimes against his favour. He learned the
hard way that “power [was] a slippery thing in research relationships”(Adams 1999,
339) and that research was not following a linear path, contra textbook deﬁnitions and
standardised research guides.
Aftab experienced similar dilemmas when he collected data about the use and misuse
of language as a tool of control in post-colonial Pakistan in Pattoki, Lahore, and Sargodha
from the educational and judicial sectors between 2013 and 2014 (see Nasir 2020). When
Aftab was a child, he never knew he was living in a small village of a developing country.
It was only in his teen years that he came to know the complexities of belonging to a
nation that was seen worldwide as a liability instead of an asset. Just as Arda, whenever
he wanted to visit the US or a Western European country, he always faced visa problems.
He had to complete a whole lot of documents, give all kind of guarantees that he would
not run away, and prove that he would come back to his home country. What made a
country developed and what rendered another underdeveloped? Over the period of
time, it became clear that it had less to do with the way people associated with their
countries and more with how other countries perceived them. Before he began his
PhD, Aftab thought he knew his society, history, and culture as a lived experience.
During his doctoral coursework, however, the ﬁrst ﬁssure happened when he was
“taught”that he had to unlearn his associations and be an objective observer; an outsider
to his own social reality and research it as if he did not know the phenomenon and the
ﬁeld he was working in. In other words, he was told that he had to be someone else for the
sake of good, authentic empirical research. While nothing seemed problematic back then,
later on it became a serious challenge of knowledge production on “development”. This
practice of being objective inadvertently meant diminishing his lived experience as a
citizen of Pakistani society and putting on the lenses of already generated, often misun-
derstood, and deeply problematic discourses of power, distinctions, and inequalities.
Moreover, it meant that he had to subscribe to the value set of Western thinkers if he
wanted to publish his works within the academic world far and beyond the institution
he was associated with. Upon his arrival for “ﬁeld research”in Pakistan, he received a
mixed response of suspicion and appreciation. A section of his sample imagined that
he had a hidden agenda behind seemingly harmless research since he was working in
a country (Germany) that generated data and used it for ulterior motives or political
gains. He tried to shatter this myth by disclosing all his research protocols, methods,
and questions. Still, he found resistance on the part of many participants who did not
CJDS / LA REVUE 9
trust him. While he considered himself an “insider”, the mere perception of the locals of
him being an “outsider”always stood in his way. The appreciation came from a diﬀerent
segment, and was reminiscent of the colonial history of Pakistan. Since the time of British
rule, there developed a certain sense of being welcoming and submissive to anyone or
anything that was foreign, mostly related to Europe. Since he was aﬃliated with an insti-
tution in Germany, it meant that he was associated with the superior culture and society.
Thus, the appreciation he received was actually directed toward the link with all that was
white in a more symbolic sense. It represented a post-colonial reality where the colonial
power might have left the country, but the existing structures and development schemes
still had remnants of inequality, deeply embedded in the functioning of “development”
research. However, for Aftab, the dilemma of being either an insider or an outsider,
both or none, remained unresolved, a fact that intersects through his research ﬁndings
and that thickens the debate on positionalities emphasised in the article.
Being aware of the colonial implications of “ﬁeld research”and feeling uncomfortable
with the institutional expectations, Julia focused on the “development apparatus”and
looked at the machinery rather than at the people to be “developed”. She focused on
the partnerships of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with local
groups and movements and spent several months in Haiti between 2012 and 2014 (see
Schöneberg 2016,2017). Her experiences were diﬀerent to the experiences of Arda
and Aftab for three reasons: As a German in Haiti, she was white, she was female, and
she was a complete “outsider”. After reading up on the literature on Haiti, ﬁnalising
her research proposal (i.e. checking all the boxes required by the PhD programme),
and booking her ﬂight to Port-au-Prince, Julia assumed she was ready for “the ﬁeld”.
However, upon her arrival, she was convinced not only that her presence and desire
to do research in Haiti was completely misled, but also that there was nothing meaningful
she would be able to contribute. In an instant she was (made) aware of her whiteness,
something that had been too easy to be ignorant of before. In a country where white
was associated with rich businesspeople, powerful diplomats, well-earning NGO
“expats”and, above all, a history and legacy of brutal colonial rule and exploitation, it
was impossible to remain as ignorant. She went through several phases attempting to
deal with the feeling of guilt of being white.Atﬁrst, she attempted to make herself invis-
ible and play the role of a neutral observer from the detached space of an outsider, failing.
Stepping out to the streets in urban areas or visiting communities in rural areas, she was
constantly addressed with diﬀerent (nick)names, referring to her whiteness.“Hey Blan!”,
meaning white person or foreigner in Haitian Kreyol, she was often called. Every day, and
everywhere, she was continuously reminded of her position as the “Self”in sharp contrast
to “the Other”. It reminded her of her (white) privilege and of her being part of the West
that has intervened “the Rest”in so many destructive and unjust ways. The names she
was called primarily made a reference to her whiteness or foreignness, but they were in
fact not just simple descriptions. They held all the implications of violent white supre-
macy rule, colonial histories and colonial present, and “development”projects to civilise
the “uncivilized”or to develop the underdeveloped. This visibility was present regardless
of how hard she tried (and failed) to be invisible as a blan. In the next phase, she tried to
mingle and blend in, become a somewhat insider. Sharing everyday chores and daily life
in the communities, she helped preparing food, swept courtyards, fetched water from the
river, and chatted. However, even though people expressed their interest, respect, and
10 A. BILGEN ET AL.
established rapport, inevitably she remained an outsider. In the third phase, she felt the
best she could do was to move rather too close to a cultural relativist analysis of every-
thing she experienced. All these failures not only increased the depth of the limbo, but
also shook the legitimacy of her presence in “the ﬁeld”. After all, she thought, she
would get her rewards in the forms of academic degrees and recognition, but what
beneﬁt did her endeavours provide for the people who so readily shared their lives
and spent time with her? Did she represent their voices correctly? Would she ever be
able to give back? Was she not at all interested in what the subaltern was eating (see Syl-
vester 1999), but interested just in an abstract and theoretical analysis of discourses, rep-
resentations, and positions of power and knowledge? In other words, during and after
her presence in Haiti, she constantly questioned in what ways her humble eﬀorts
could make meaningful scientiﬁc, intellectual, and most importantly, practical contri-
butions to people, if at all.
Positionality and knowledge production
What does this debate on positionalities have to do with knowledge production, one
might wonder. Despite our obviously diﬀerent, but nevertheless similar experiences,
there is one tension that lies at the heart of it: the white colonial gaze. We conceive of
the world in binaries (Pailey 2019, 734), taking the white colonial gaze for granted.
Indeed, race has been an elephant in the (“development”) room for long. Gurminder
Bhambra has poignantly coined the term “methodological whiteness”to describe “a
way of reﬂecting on the world that fails to acknowledge the role played by race in the
very structuring of that world, and of the ways in which knowledge is constructed and
legitimated within it”(2017). The colonial gaze is implicated in the circumstances of
“going to the ﬁeld”and the way researchers are taught to extract knowledge, only think-
ing of it in the singular. At the core lies the question of who gets to be an expert and what
kind of knowledge is considered relevant, i.e. academic. For instance, for many PhD stu-
dents, the process of legitimisation starts earlier in their projects when they start learning
how to unlearn and re-learn. This is done in practice through the colonial gaze that turns
these researchers into question marks. The gaze bifurcates them, and creates what Homi
Bhabha calls “a split between soul and the whole”(2012, 107). It means that researchers
enter a reﬂection mode where they re-search themselves and try to ﬁnd qualiﬁers that will
make them acceptable, relatable, and adaptable in new academic, socio-cultural, and
psychological environments. Researchers are left with limited options other than
abiding by the rules of the neoliberal, Western-dominated academy. The random mass
of “misﬁts”–researchers who come from various countries, especially outside the
West –go through the processes of legitimisation by shedding their (black) skins and
learning to wear new (white) masks as the gaze “politely”implies (see Fanon 1995).
Therefore, it is the discourse of whiteness, of knowing more and more authors from
the West that makes researchers ﬁt for pursuing their academic goals with legitimacy.
This gaze forces researchers to look at themselves in newfound “enlightened”ways, i.e.
of producing knowledges, and at their research in the way that looks objective, scientiﬁc
(read: positivist), and above all apolitical. The universalising process becomes complete
when researchers convince their peers and seniors that they, too, have the skills to
conduct research like they do and that they, too, can see through their eyes –through
CJDS / LA REVUE 11
this over-arching, all-encompassing gaze that primarily installs and cements the hierar-
chies and asymmetries of power.
The above-mentioned universalising tendency lies at the root of all academic research,
training, and practice happening in the ﬁeld of “development”. First and foremost, as
Dipesh Chakrabarty puts it, scholars
who shape the nature of social science have produced theories that embrace the entirety of
humanity. [However], these statements have been produced in relative, and sometimes
absolute, ignorance of the majority of humankind –that is, those living in non-Western cul-
Relatedly, researchers are generally trained to take concepts like power, empowerment,
and order as a given and to focus primarily on the “general behavioural patterns or
trends”of these concepts. They are tasked to apply these concepts in their work, validate
these ﬁndings through empirical data, and disregard the “deviations”. They are also
encouraged, especially by the funding agencies, to think of research as an “ordered, rational
process that should progress in a linear fashion in clearly deﬁned steps and with sensible
hypotheses and feasible objectives”(Fraser 2012, 292). In such a research setting, position-
alities are of crucial importance to prevent the overpowering universal from suﬀocating
the particular. Otherwise, “the monoculture of knowledge”would produce non-existence
by turning scientiﬁc knowledge into the only criterion of truth (Santos 2004, 238–239).
Similarly, the “monoculture of the universal and the global”would produce non-existence
by rendering the local and particular as an inferior, noncredible alternative to what exists
globally and universally (Santos 2004, 238–239). When research is conducted in this uni-
versalised fashion, the end result becomes a market-oriented, sellable product that must
attract the gaze of a potential “buyer”. Interpreted this way, producing a thesis or an
article becomes hardly diﬀerent from any other practice of modern-day neoliberal econ-
omics. The commercialisation of research, accompanied and reinforced by the publish-
or-perish culture that has permeated the increasingly precarious academy, makes
researchers “voluntarily”leave their intuitive knowledge behind and rely on the “real”,
“legitimate”, and “universal”knowledge to be counted.
Bottom-up perspectives are made less visible or less accurate through similar mechan-
isms. As our stories show, the data we generate “do not simply exist ‘out there’, [but] are a
product of the relationship between the researcher and her informants”(Adams 1999,
360). Researchers are the ones who write up the results and “way forward”sections of
their studies. However, none or only a tiny percentage of research participants can
access these studies. Even if these works are published and distributed in the native
languages of participants instead of English, most of these people are not literate,
let alone formally educated. Even if the participants are educated, these works are pub-
lished in expensive books and paywalled journals, a situation that turns a collective good
into a commercial asset (White 2020, 500). If participants wrote their own narratives,
these narratives would be quite diﬀerent. Their emphasis would probably not fulﬁl the
speciﬁc guidelines of scientiﬁc research. What if, for instance, power is not at all anything
as Foucault foresaw it to the farmer who enjoys his work in the ﬁeld and likes the fact that
he is a part of a natural order in which his relation to the mother earth is closer and more
direct than any economic gains he might have by exploiting it most? How shall we quan-
tify these experiences? Similarly, what if today’s mantra of social construction of reality is
12 A. BILGEN ET AL.
actually a socially conditioned response to a very speciﬁc socio-historical context of
modern and post-modern experiences of a Western society? Researchers do the laborious
work of wrapping such practices in appropriate and catchy academic phrases that
appease the participants’doubts, serving the purpose of knowledge production centres
that are most of the time located in the North. Power structures leave little or no
space for researchers to let things present themselves openly, chaotically, and randomly.
Quite ironically, the habitus of critical thinking is structured in a way that it leaves no
room to think critically about the concepts like habitus in the ﬁrst place. For such
reasons, it is actually necessary to rethink our perceptions and reﬂect on our positional-
ities in every phase of our social scientiﬁc inquiries.
“Development”is never neutral, and always political. Power relations continue to shape
the way “development”is understood, implemented, and researched. The problematisa-
tion of, and the reﬂection on, these structures has once again demonstrated that our posi-
tionalities as well as our privileges, values, beliefs, interests, and experiences inﬂuence the
process of how we perceive the reality and study developmental issues. As researchers, we
play the role of “data-churning midwives”. We give birth to a baby created of data. We
cut its umbilical cord from its mother, the context, and slowly baptise it with the holy
waters of theoretical knowledge and sanctify it in a speciﬁc technical and/or disciplinary
language. The truth is then rather imposed upon it instead of organically emanating from
it, but the optics are designed to give an impression of an organic spectacle. As research-
ers, we become the catalysts that enhance the process of data production. We are
entrusted with a task that makes us responsible for keeping the links, or rather enforcing
the links, onto the data generated around a certain topic. However, the way we approach
these tasks and the tools we turn to guide us are much dependent on our positionalities.
Indeed, becoming aware of our positionalities requires the willingness to encounter
discomfort and the courage to reﬂect this in the words we write down as academic con-
tributions. However, having such an awareness (about the self) is an essential step
towards reconceptualizing research as a “co-construction”of knowledge as well as con-
ducting research “with”, rather than “on”or “about”a group or area of interest (see Breen
2007, 164). This awareness is crucial especially when we seek to understand, and propose
solutions to, the issues that involve political, social, and humanitarian elements. Failing
to acknowledge these intricacies means to commit to the acts of epistemic violence and
perpetuate the injustices with regard to the acknowledgement of diverse knowledges, cos-
movisions, and epistemologies that reach far beyond a (Western) positivist stance of
Despite the bleak analysis of the status quo, not all is lost. There are pockets of resist-
ance, communities, and movements that are already challenging the white colonial gaze
of “development”. For example, according to Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2013), relational
accountability asks the following questions at the outset of every research process:
Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will beneﬁt from it?
Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write
it up? How will its results be disseminated?
CJDS / LA REVUE 13
There remains the question of how to go about. For any research that involves inter-
action with people, including and exclusively “development”research, the aspects of
positionality, relationality, and reciprocity should be fulﬁlled. “Development”research
cannot be legitimate if one of them is neglected, because it inevitably means that
power asymmetries are glossed over and that power hierarchies are accepted, and
Similarly, decolonial thinking and black feminism teach us that knowledges are
always contextual, relational, and intersectional. Keya Khandaker and Lata Narayanas-
wamy (2020) demand that “without action on structural inequality, we will forever be
tinkering around the edges of the intersectional challenges both created and nurtured
by how we frame ‘development’, which is intrinsically both a gendered and a racialised
construct”. Walter Mignolo (2011) proposes the “decolonial option”, an option that
calls to question the structures and institutions, the coloniality of power that is
inherent in “development”to try to break the structures of epistemic injustices by lis-
tening to voices beyond established realms, to acknowledge their contestations and
resistances, to acknowledge the continuation of colonial structures still present, of
which, as researchers and human beings, far from being neutral, we are part,
whether we like it or not. Such an understanding requires an epistemological shift
to acknowledge the value of non-positivist traditions of knowledge production, a
methodological shift to see people as co-researchers rather than mines of information
to be extracted, and a lexicon shift to construct a language that is comprehensible for
many instead of a few.
Another helpful frame for resisting, contesting, and even subverting this gaze is pro-
vided by the concept of pluriverse. In contrast to Euro-modern universality, the Zapa-
tistas famously pledged to seek a “world in which many worlds ﬁt”. Arturo Escobar
(2016, 15) has put forward that the crises we face are foremost of a particular “set of
world-making practices […] that we usually refer to as the dominant form of Euro-
modernity (capitalist, rationalist, liberal, secular, patriarchal, white, or what have
you)”. Pluriverse requires us to transcend borders both geographically and mentally
beyond narrow disciplinary conﬁnements, while paying respect and giving recognition
to diversity and otherness. A thought-provoking example is provided by the edited
volume Pluriverse (Kothari et al. 2019) which oﬀers a wealth of concepts, cosmovisions,
and practices showcasing the utopia of a “world in which many worlds ﬁt”in contrast
to the Western monoculture. While the alternatives described source from all over the
world, they share fundamental commonalities as to what a good life and well-being
entail: the unity of human and non-human, community and interdependence, sover-
eignty and self-government. All of them critique the logic and impact of the Anthropo-
cene, (neo-)extractivism, and uncritical belief in Euro-modernist ideologies of progress
In hindsight, we wish we could more overtly challenge the structures that produced
and implemented inequalities and injustices, the apparatus that was “doing the develop-
ing”, and the historical traces on which it was built. This article can be read as an eﬀort to
make up for our past neglect of the critical gaze. We hope that current and future PhD
students as well as early career researchers take inspiration from the ideas presented here.
It is promising to see that an increasing number of researchers engage in reﬂexivity today.
More and more books, theses, and articles explain in detail, or at least brieﬂy mention,
14 A. BILGEN ET AL.
how the positionality of the researcher inﬂuences the research process (see Acar, Moss,
and Uluğ2020; Baser et al. 2018; Crabtree 2019; Idahosa and Bradbury 2020; Millora,
Maimunah, and Still 2020). We also hope that a greater number of higher education insti-
tutions that control ﬁnancial, human, and other resources become more aware and sen-
sitive of the structural problems in this ﬁeld and take action, at least by preparing the next
generation of researchers to face and negotiate the issues of power throughout their
research processes, especially if the research takes place in delicate environments such
as postcolonial settings or traumatised places. This is crucial “to avoid exploitative
research or perpetuation of relations of domination and control”and, hence, for
ethical research (Sultana 2007, 375).
Going back to the tale of the old man told in the beginning of the article. As of 2020,
we still witness that, on any given day, there are many conferences arranged, workshops
held, and meetings convened on how to alleviate poverty, increase net enrolment, secure
food, and so on. These practices end up producing more conferences, workshops, and
meetings on how to achieve all the above-mentioned tasks. “Development”practice is
the donkey in our story. Most of the time, what “development”experts actually
succeed in developing are the practices of doing “development”at national, local, and
regional levels. The old man’s secret was not to hide his goods, but to put them so up
front that no one would even notice them. This resembles how “development”is
being done, and the secret to its success: the very rampant, always present nature of
its object, power hierarchies, and asymmetries keep it away from the lens of an analysis
at any given point. This is partly the reason why “development”research, policy, and
practice are so much focused on “ﬁxing development”rather than contesting the very
concept and on ﬁnding alternatives of “development”rather than alternatives to “devel-
As a contribution to these eﬀorts, we repeat our call to challenge and disrupt
the universalising, homogenising, and colonising (material and non-material) practices
that are well-ingrained within and around “development”. Doing so is neither utopian
nor unrealistic, and it is never too late to do that.
1. The word, the concept, and the practice has been (ab)used for a broad variety of speciﬁc
agendas, all of them structured by the hierarchies and asymmetries of power. Depending
on fashionable fads, “development”has come to be conceptualised as development-as-
growth, development-as-progress, and many more, becoming an “amoeba”term that
lacks any real meaning (Esteva 1992). To highlight its contested and ambiguous nature,
we will use “development”in inverted commas throughout the text.
2. One recent eﬀort to mitigate all of this on the level of knowledge production is the Convivial
Thinking Collective, which Julia and Aftab have founded in 2018 and Arda has been a sup-
porter ever since. The collective brings together a group of scholars who embrace post- and
decolonial approaches when thinking, speaking, and writing about “development”and
beyond (Convivial Thinking 2020). With creating space for convivial thinking, the collective
attempts to break the cycle of the binary constructions we have mentioned throughout this
article. According to the collective, the route towards knowing the unknowns cannot be
conﬁned to traditional academic mediums. Therefore, it provides an open-source, decentra-
lised platform to initiate and enrich debates about “development”through more informal
mediums such as visual art pieces, poems, personal anecdotes, and opinion pieces that
would otherwise be lost in the hierarchical spaces of formal academic publications.
CJDS / LA REVUE 15
The authors thank the two anonymous referees for their helpful and constructive comments and
Notes on contributors
Arda Bilgen is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Development, Community,
and Environment at Clark University. His research interests lie at the intersection of the politics of
natural resources, the politics of infrastructure, and the governance of development.
Aftab Nasir is an Assistant Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Forman
Christian College University. His research interests are post-colonial epistemologies, sociolinguis-
tics, psychoanalysis, political sociology, and development studies.
Julia Schöneberg is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department for Development and Postcolo-
nial Studies at the University of Kassel. Her research focusses on practical Post-Development,
social movements and resistances, as well as decolonial approaches to knowledge co-creation
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