A Space for Unlearning? A Relational Perspective on North–South Development Research


The politics of knowledge is a foundational issue in development research. This includes questioning the processes through which knowledge is produced and the terms of the ‘partnerships’ or ‘collaborations’ involved. Such analyses tend to emphasise structural difference and can reproduce all too familiar tropes of dominating global North and deficit global South. This paper takes instead a relational perspective to investigate how such notions are generated, sustained and may be contested through interactions between people, and between people and their contexts. For data, the paper draws on experiences and observations related in a 2018–2019 workshop series on international collaborations in development research. It argues the need to go beyond a focus on ‘mentoring’ or ‘capacity building’ to explore the interactive generation of researcher selves; temper commitments to generalisability with recognition of the inherent value of the particular; and pay more attention to the unintended outcomes of research, and especially its production of waste.


Les politiques du savoir constituent une base fondamentale de la recherche pour le développement. Cela implique de remettre en question les processus de production du savoir, ainsi que les termes des « partenariats » ou des « collaborations » qui sont impliqués. De telles analyses ont tendance à mettre l’accent sur les différences structurelles et peuvent reproduire tous les tropes bien connus d’un Nord dominant et d’un Sud déficitaire. Cet article adopte plutôt une perspective relationnelle pour étudier la façon dont ces notions sont produites, soutenues et peuvent être contestées par des interactions entre les personnes, et entre les personnes et leurs contextes. En ce qui concerne les données, l’article s’appuie sur les expériences et les observations liées à une série d’ateliers réalisés en 2018-19 sur les collaborations internationales dans la recherche sur le développement. Il fait valoir la nécessité: d’aller au-delà de l’accent mis sur le « mentorat » ou le « renforcement des capacités » pour explorer la création interactive du soi chercheur; de tempérer les engagements de généralisabilité en reconnaissant la valeur intrinsèque du particulier; et d’accorder plus d’attention aux résultats inattendus de la recherche, et en particulier à sa production de déchets.

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  1. 1.

    The series was co-sponsored by the UK Development Studies Association and the Economic and Social Research Council/Global Challenges Research Fund.

  2. 2.

    The focus of the workshops were: Zoonoses and One Health (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex); Ethical research in contexts of post-conflict and displacement (Universities of Reading and Bath); Frontiers in urban infrastructure research and action (Universities of Manchester and Sheffield); Responding to environmental change (University of East Anglia and John Innes Centre); Educational Inequality, Poverty and Development (University of Bristol); Water and Sustainable Development (University of Bradford); Towards More Equitable Interdisciplinary Partnership (SOAS, University of London). For separate workshop reports and other resources see: https://www.devstud.org.uk/interdisciplinary-research/.

  3. 3.

    Different colleagues in each case.

  4. 4.

    I do not mean by this to suggest that gender has some reality beyond the social world, simply that its association with bodily difference means that it is widely accepted as a social (and for many natural) fact.

  5. 5.

    The fear among southern partners of being judged for late delivery of project outputs, mentioned by both Kontinen and Nguyahambi (2020) and Grieve and Mitchell (2020), seems to me an example of this.

  6. 6.

    This resonates uncomfortably with Mudimbe’s (1988) description of colonialism, as involving the ideological destruction of vernacular ways of seeing/thinking and the integration of colonised economy and history into Western economy and master narrative.

  7. 7.

    For more information on this see Chege (2019).

  8. 8.

    Public comment at the EADI workshop, Vienna, October 2018. Henning Melber was President of EADI, The European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes, at the time.


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This Commentary Section draws on a 2018/9 Development Studies Association (DSA) Workshop Series and a DSA conference panel, 2019.

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White, S.C. A Space for Unlearning? A Relational Perspective on North–South Development Research. Eur J Dev Res 32, 483–502 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-020-00278-9

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  • International development research
  • Partnerships
  • Collaboration
  • Relational social science