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Reflections from a position of privilege

Date Released: Mon, 20 August 2018 14:18 +0200

By Nokwanda Dlamini, fourth-year Bachelor of Journalism and Media Studies student

Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor’s 2017 Distinguished Research Awardee, Dr Sally Matthews gave her lecture titled: “Reflections from a Position of Privilege: An Account of a Research Trajectory” on the 15th of August, to an audience of scholars and academics.

Her research trajectory is largely defined by her position within the South African framework, and it engages with debates within development theory and post-development theory. The debate’s complex nature, which often comes without concrete answers, has drawn her to a wide body of research to account for both her privilege and how it defines her role in a society and as an academic.

She noted how this has resulted in her not really having a coherent body of research through which she has made a significant contribution to a particular field and this was why she decided to use this opportunity to provide an overview of her research and how it has influenced some of the fields she has contributed to.

After completing her master’s degree at the University of Pretoria, Dr Matthews applied for the Commonwealth scholarship to pursue her PhD. Through her research, she gained insight into the debates of post-development and development theorists. In her thesis, she wanted to answer the question of “If development is not the answer to poverty, then how do we respond adequately to poverty and injustice?”

The answer to the question was not simple, since post-development theorists tend to view development as cultural imperialism and environmentally destructive. However, there have also been critiques of post-development theorists who felt that by abandoning development, we were abandoning the poor and oppressed, and their struggles against poverty and injustice.

She called on the words of Edward Said: “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society,” to explain how her work is influenced by her personal life and her position in society as a privileged white woman living in South Africa.

She also used a quote by Sandra Harding, “Knowledge claims arealways socially-situated, and the failure by dominant groups criticallyand systematically tointerrogate their advantaged social situationand theeffectof such advantageson their beliefs, leaves their social situation ascientifically-and epistemologically-disadvantaged one forgenerating knowledge,” to explain that when trying to produce knowledge that is objective and fair, we ought not to ignore our social positions and attempt to produce the view from nowhere. We should rather critique and interrogate our own positions as part of the process of producing knowledge.

Dr Matthews’ research interest was founded on the basis of her questioning her position and the impact it has on her role in society. This led her to question, “How should I, and others like me, live?”

This process of her rethinking also raised the question of, “How should we understand Africa and address its subjugation?”

These are questions that she has not found the answer to, but her research trajectory is heavily influenced by the acknowledgement of whiteness and the colonial past that influenced the now western epistemological order and the hope that she can produce knowledge concerning Africa that can unsettle it.

Where her work differs from most researchers is that, instead of building on her PhD research to create a solid profile and establish herself as an authority in her field, she decided not to continue with the project begun with her PhD. Her reason for this was because, upon returning to South Africa, Dr Matthews was struck with a very real sense of awareness about her position as a privileged white person living in a town of inequality, within an impoverished province. Her awareness of the social position she occupies made her see things through a different lens. This led to new ideas, which she decided to explore in her research, despite her new path being a complex one.

Source:Communications