Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Decolonizing Knowledge Production

  • Sandew Hira
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_508

The Decolonial Movement

Around the globe today, there are countless groups that raise the banner of decolonizing knowledge, power, and the mind. Books, articles, conferences, summer school programs, research projects, websites, Facebook groups, and international networks have been formed under the flag of “decolonization.” It has become a catchphrase in new social movements around the world and in the academia. “Decolonizing knowledge and power,” “decolonizing the mind,” “decolonizing the city,” “decolonizing the diet,” “decolonizing architecture,” “decolonizing knowledge production,” and many more expressions that begin with “decolonizing …” are part of a broader movement that aims to contest the continued influence of colonialism on knowledge, understanding, and contemporary society.

Across the academia decolonizing knowledge has challenged colonial ideas labeled as racism, postcolonialism, or Orientalism and has advanced frameworks such as critical race studies, postcolonial studies, and decolonizing the mind. Departments like African-American Studies, Asian and Asian-American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, and Native American Studies are at the vanguard of such analysis. Outside the academia, in community groups and social movements, decolonizing knowledge can be traced to resistance against colonialism from the very start in 1492.

The central premise of the decolonial movement is the idea that there is a third narrative of liberation of mankind besides Liberalism and Marxism: a decolonial narrative.

Liberalism grew out of Western Enlightenment with the narrative of the liberation of the mind from the authority of the church and the liberation of the individual from the constraint of society. Marxism is an offshoot of Western Enlightenment that offered a critique of Liberalism from a class perspective. In the anti-colonial movements of the Third World, Marxism was adopted as a narrative of liberation. The decolonial movement tries to articulate a philosophy of liberation outside the framework of Western Enlightenment.

The decolonial movement arose in a complex set of circumstances in the late twentieth century. This entry goes into with five factors explaining the rise of this movement and the creation of decolonial knowledge.

The decolonial knowledge production covers many themes, from decolonizing mathematics and physics to epistemology, history of science, and basis categories in the social science. This entry is limited to epistemology, the concept of class and a theory of racism, and knowledge production.

The Rise of the Decolonial Movement

Several factors explain the rise of the decolonial movement in recent decades.

The first factor is the collapse of the socialist bloc and the accompanying demise of Marxism. Within 3 years – between 1989 and 1992 – 20 of the 24 countries dissolved their socialist system including the first socialist country, the USSR. In the remaining four countries – China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Laos – ongoing experiments seek to combine central planning with some kind of modified market economy. The downfall of the socialist bloc contributed to the downfall of Marxism as a discourse of liberation (Kramer 2012).

The second is the fall of the West and the rise of the rest (Zakaria 2009). Colonized countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean are rising as regional and global power: economically, politically, and militarily. Their rise strengthens their self-confidence culturally and opens up a space for probing other paths of knowledge production that goes against Western cultural hegemony. A remarkable case is China. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) was denounced by Mao Zedong as reflecting a semifeudal culture. He criticized those who advocated the study of Confucius, for promoting backward ideas. In 2014 President Xi Jinping praised Confucius and the ancient Chinese philosophers for their rational thinking and cultural achievements of China and currently looks to them as a source of ideas for running China (Xi Jinping 2015).

The third is the struggle of social movements for dignity and recognition based on ancient civilizations. In large parts of the Americas, the indigenous population has been largely wiped out by colonial genocide. But some countries still have sizable communities left, including Peru (45%), Bolivia (44%), Guatemala (41%), Mexico (28%), Belize (17%), Ecuador (14%), and Panama (12%). Five hundred years of colonialism did not crush their spirit. In 2005, Evo Morales was chosen as the first indigenous president in a general election in Bolivia. In 2009 a new constitution was adopted in a referendum with 91% attendance and 61% approval. The preamble opens with a statement of acknowledgment of the ancient history of its people and defines as one of the functions of the State as to construct a just and harmonious society built on decolonization (see Bolivia 2014).

The fourth factor has to do with the rise of social movements in multicultural societies across the West. Communities of color in Western Europe and North America continued the struggle to establish, defend, and sustain their identity in the face of a hegemonic Western culture. Their encounter with racism has forced them to seek narratives of liberation that affirm their identity, including narratives outside of Marxism that use class as the basic unit of social and political analysis. In France decolonial activists have even invented the term “white left” to insist that racism is also virulent in the socialist movement that have expressed support for banning the veil (Bouteldja 2014).

The fifth determinant is the unfinished business of the classical liberation movements. In South Africa the promise of a rainbow nation that would overcome the legacy of apartheid has fallen short. The disappointment with the transformation to a new society has led black South Africans to question the old narrative of liberation and search for a new one. In 2015 students from the University of Cape Town mobilized so that the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a leading colonialist and advocate of apartheid, must be brought down. In 2002 the Rhodes Trust and President Nelson Mandela formed the Mandela Rhodes Foundation with an endowment of £10 million to provide scholarships to train a new generation of future African leaders. It was an attempt to reconcile a troublesome past. The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement spread to other parts of South Africa and carried the slogan of decolonizing the university. It was also a critique of the attempt to reconcile Rhodes with the new future of South Africa (Mandela 2003, UCT RMF 2015).

Some Themes of Decolonial Knowledge Production

There is a wide variety of themes in decolonial knowledge production. Some are related to the specific factors behind the rise of the decolonial movement. The decline of socialism and Marxism brought to the fore the relevance of the concept of class. The rise of China as a superpower comes with a reappraisal of knowledge produced by ancient Chinese philosophers. The social movements in Latin America that is based on ancient indigenous civilizations brought competing concepts of the relationship between nature and society in the field of sustainable development. The social movements in the multicultural societies in the West brought the question of race to prominence in debates about identity formation of the West. In South Africa the failure of the ANC to realize the dreams of social justice and prosperity opened new debates on race relations in Africa.

Here are a few examples of themes that are developed in the decolonial movement.


Western science was based on the idea of René Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” A decolonial critique centers on five aspects.

First, there is the question of the location from which you speak. Imagine an enslaved African running from his enslavers who will torture him if they catch him. If there would be anyone in the world to doubt his existence, then it would be this man running for his life in a reality that looks like a horror dream. Yet, the idea that during his flight he might consider philosophizing about the concept “I think therefore I am” would sound like a sketch from a stand-up comedy. So if you situate the discussion not in the house of Descartes in The Hague where he sits at his warm fireplace with a wine in his hand, but, in the Caribbean during slavery, the nonsense becomes apparent (Descartes 2002, p. 7).

Second, Western philosophy looks at knowledge production as the result of an individual activity of thinking. If we were to do that consistently, we could not ever know if we are dreaming, because if you were the only person in the world, there would be nobody to tell you if you are awake or if you are dreaming. That knowledge cannot come from you. Somebody else has to tell you that. It is impossible to say “I think, therefore I am not dreaming.” You can also think in your dream, as we know from experience and common sense. African scholars present the alternative concept of Ubuntu that argues that knowledge production is realized through communities. They paraphrase Descartes in the slogan “I am because we are.” Knowledge is not only acquired by an individual that conducts research, but is transmitted via social relations from generation to generation and is ingrained in the collective mind of a community. An individual does not need to go through the process of accumulating knowledge (Gade 2012).

Third, even in his dream, Descartes separates object from subject. His imagination is so limited that can only think of the subject that is dreaming. What about the object that is dreaming? In Chinese philosophy there is a famous tale about the Taoist philosopher, Zhuang Zhou (369–286 BCE), that goes as follows. Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself, and doing as he pleased. He did not know that he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he did not know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Descartes’ imagination was limited in his conceptualization of life, which was limited to human life (Lee 2015).

Fourth, there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of doubt and common sense in Descartes. No sane person doubts his or her existence. You can have doubts about the absurdity of life – am I really going through this experience – but it is impossible to doubt your existence. Because no one can image his “nonexistence.” You can imagine not being at a certain location, but what does it mean to say “I don’t exist?” There are many human needs and actions that assure your existence, not only the process of thinking, but any other human activity. It is matter of common sense. If you doubt your existence, put your hand in a fire, let yourself experience hyperbolical doubt, and that will bring common sense into you. Or starve yourself to death and see how long it takes to come to the conclusion “I am hungry, therefore I am.” There is a saying in Indian philosophy that distinguishes between common sense and nonsense: “we can mistake a rope for a snake, but we don’t mistake a snake for an elephant.”

Classes and Oppressed Groups

Marxist analysis is based on the concepts of class and the ownership of the means of production. A class is defined by its relationship to the ownership of means of production and the control of labor power (Marx and Engels 1847, pp. 14–15). Decolonial thinkers question the Marxist concept of class as a central tool in analyzing social relations.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci shifted this notion by introducing the rather vague concept of the “subaltern,” which he defines as groups of people who are subjected to the initiatives of the dominant class, even when they rebel. Peasants, who own the means of production (land), also belong to the subaltern groups (Gramsci 1999, pp. 202–203). The concept was taken up by South Asian historians in the Subaltern Studies Group who articulated new narratives of the colonial history of India and South Asia on the basis of this concept (Guha 1982).

Aimé Césaire introduced the concept of race and the colonial subject into the Marxist discussion on class in his letter of resignation from the French Communist Party in 1956: “It is clear that our struggle – the struggle of colonial peoples against colonialism, the struggle of peoples of color against racism – is more complex, or better yet, of a completely different nature than the fight of the French worker against French capitalism, and it cannot in any way be considered a part, a fragment, of that struggle” (Césaire 1956).

Marcus Garvey elaborated on the concept of race and explained the struggle in the world as a struggle of white Europeans seeking to dominate black people and people of color across the world. His narrative resonated in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa, and he succeeded at that time in building the largest black organization in the world (Universal Negro Improvement Association) with up to one million members. Race thus became a central concept in decolonial thinking. It laid the foundation of Pan-Africanism as a movement to unite all people of African descent against colonialism.

Outside the Afro experience, similar narratives were developed based more on culture than race. In academia Edward Said used the concept of Orientalism to characterize Western attitude of superiority toward Eastern cultures that they regarded as inferior (Said 1977). The response to Orientalism was the rise of Pan-Islamist movements in the nineteenth century that sought to unite Muslims to resist colonial occupation of Muslim lands. The Pan-Islamists took Islam as the basis for organization (Sever 2010). Pan-Arabism in the twentieth century sought to organize colonized people in North Africa and West Asia on the basis of Arab culture (Lungu and Gokcel 2014). Pan-Asianism was a movement that aimed at uniting all Asian people against colonialism (Duara 2001). The decolonial narrative did not take class but the colonial subject as the central unit of its analysis.

There is a complex relationship between the factors determining social relations such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, and nation. Decolonial analysis brings in the way colonialism has impacted these factors in such a way that ethnicity became a core factor in the global colonial system.

Theory of Racism

As race and ethnicity play a crucial role in the decolonial analysis, a theory of racism is a crucial part of decolonial thinking. A decolonial theory of racism as developed by Ramon Grosfoguel (Grosfoguel 2013) and the author (Hira 2015) has two dimensions. One dimension tackles the ways in which racism is embedded in knowledge production. The other confronts the ways in which racism is embedded in society in general.

In knowledge production racism is defined as a concept that articulates that superiority/inferiority of social groups is related to characteristics such as soul, biology, and culture. The articulation of racism is intertwined with the authority of knowledge production. Ramon Grosfoguel (Grosfoguel 2013, pp. 81–83) explains that there are three forms to this articulation of racism in knowledge production. The first form is the articulation of superiority/inferiority in terms of creatures having a soul. In the debate of Valladolid of 1550 between theologians Batolomé de Las Casas and Juan Jinés de Sepúlveda, the first argued that the indigenous people of the Americas had a soul, and therefore they were humans – although like children – while the latter sustained that they had no soul, and therefore they were animals that could be sold. The authority of knowledge production was Christian theology. This is called theological racism in knowledge production and was developed between 1492 and 1650 when the Spaniards colonized the Americas.

The second form is the articulation of superiority/inferiority in terms of biological characteristics. Between 1650 and 1850, superiority/inferiority was articulated in terms of biological traits (Hira 2015, pp. 138–140). Africans (and their descendants) – who previously were regarded as civilized Moors in Europe – were now seen as cattle that could be traded in the era of the transatlantic slave trade. The authorities of knowledge production were philosophers and natural scientists, the founders of science in Europe. This is what we called biological racism.

The third form is the articulation of superiority/inferiority in terms of culture and social formations. Some cultures and social formations are viewed as backward. Western society and culture is regarded as the highest stage in the evolution of human civilization. The authority of knowledge production is the rising social sciences from the second half of the nineteenth century. This is called cultural racism (Grosfoguel 2010, p. 38).

The second dimension in the theory of racism is related to how racism is embedded in the economic, social, political, and cultural institutions of society. The concept of institutional racism is used to explain that racism is not about the interaction between human beings that is deformed by feelings of superiority and inferiority but about institutions that promote and maintain the relationship of superiority/inferiority based on theology, biology, or culture. This approach rejects the simplistic and narrow notion that racism is simply the prejudice of individuals, instead focuses on the institutional ramparts of racialization, including laws, organizational operations, religion, and ideologies of individual freedom.

The Perspective for Decolonizing Knowledge Production

There are many themes that have been explored by decolonial thinkers around the world, among them mental slavery and decolonizing the mind, feminism, decolonizing mathematics and the natural sciences, the need for a decolonial terminology, and new concepts of world history.

Within these themes the initial approach centered on the nature and extent of bias in Western knowledge production, including its rejection of and hostility to knowledge production in non-Western civilizations. Currently the prevailing tendency seeks to develop alternatives to Western knowledge production: the production of concepts and theories that are based on a critique of Western knowledge production and on contributions by ancient civilizations. Islamic and Buddhist economic theories are being developed based on different moral values in competition to economic theories of the West that are based on profit maximization which has greed as its moral base (Baqir as-Sadr 1994 and 1982, Prayukvong 2005). Indian mathematician C.J. Raju – who works on decolonizing mathematics – criticizes the metaphysical foundation of Western mathematics and proposes to return to Indian mathematicians that based their work on an empirical foundation (Raju 2007).

The five factors behind the rise of the decolonial movement in recent decades as explained above indicate that decolonizing knowledge production is not a new trend that will disappear and be replaced by a new trend. Since the five factors are results of deeply embedded patterns of colonial knowledge production, it is hard to see them as trendy discourses that will, as time goes by, be replaced with other ones. Therefore, they will continue to push the need for decolonizing knowledge production. They will continue to develop new basic categories and concepts in the different disciplines of science both as a critique of Western categories and concepts and as an alternative to Western knowledge production.


Decolonial Universities

There are a few universities in the world that take on “decolonization of knowledge” or decolonization in general as a central task. Bolivian universities are an example. Bolivia is the only country where the concept of decolonizing society is enshrined in the constitution. The 2009 constitution defines one of the functions of the State: “To construct a just and harmonious society, built on decolonization, without discrimination or exploitation, with full social justice, in order to strengthen the Pluri-National identities.” It also defines the purpose of institutes for higher education: “Education is unitary, public, universal, democratic, participatory, communitarian, decolonizing and of quality.” (Bolivia 2009)

The government has established three universities named after indigenous leader of the resistance against colonialism: Tupac Katari, Apiaguaiki Tupa, and Casimiro Huanca. The universities are Tupac Katari Aymara University, Apiaguaiki Tupa Guarani University, and Casimiro Huanca Quechua University. They provide a decolonial curriculum in higher education. The description of one subject in a curriculum (agronomic technique) explains that the curriculum aims to train professionals to implement business ventures under the community and family model. Science and technology should be put at the service of communal own (not State-owned) companies. In organizational terms, the university is structured under the community democracy, which means that the decision is exercised by the community through collective deliberation and constitutes the highest authority and power, which is contrary to the elitist form of a decision as it happens in the liberal way. University officials are not elected through party competition or composition of fronts but directly through rotation and shift system (Universidad 2008).

In 1991 Canada established a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to address the struggle of the indigenous people (called First Nation in Canada). In 1996 the commission presented a 4,000-page report: The commission acknowledged the destructive and Western legacy on the First Nation people and the need to decolonize the universities. It came up with 440 recommendations, among them the establishment of an aboriginal people’s university. In 2003 the First Nations University of Canada was opened. It is embedded in the experiences of the First Nation communities and has an annual enrollment of 3,000 students. They base their university on collective values of wisdom, respect, humility, sharing, harmony, beauty, strength, and spirituality. The students learn in the context of their own traditions, languages, and values and in an environment of First Nation cultures and values that recognizes the spiritual power of knowledge (First Nation 2003).


The production of decolonial knowledge is achieved inside and outside academia. Inside academia there are individual researchers and research centers conducting research. There are academic networks that aim to unite researchers on specific subjects. One example is the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) that originated from a group of Harvard Law School graduate students in 1996. They study the mechanisms of how international law perpetuates the subordination of non-Europeans to Europeans through international legal norms and propose alternative mechanism of international law. They organize conferences on a regular basis to share and further develop this knowledge. Other networks exist outside TWAIL on international politics such as the Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial Working Group which is sponsored by the British International Studies Association. There are also regional networks that organize activists and thinkers on a regional basis. For example, in Africa there is the Africa Decolonial Research Network based at the University of South Africa. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network compiles information about knowledge systems among Alaska natives. Decoloniality Europe is a network of knowledge institutions, activists, and human rights organizations.

There are international networks such as Multiversity based in Malaysia that organizes biannual conferences that brings together scholars and activists from around the world to work on decolonizing the educational system.


Many journals devote articles on decolonizing knowledge production. Here are two examples of journals devoted to this subject. For example, AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples was launched in 2005 by New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence based at the University of Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand. It presents scholarly research on Indigenous worldviews and experiences of decolonization from Indigenous perspectives from around the world.

Another journal along the similar vein is Bandung: Journal of the Global South,” which is published by the Springer, and it is considered a cross-disciplinary human and social sciences. It aims at developing new theoretical perspectives that should be grounded on the complex postcolonial landscapes of the African, Asian, and Latin-American peoples, for identifying their own ways and strategies of development and decolonization.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Institute for Scientific ResearchThe HagueThe Netherlands