Martinez Vargas, Carmen (2017). 'Knowledge inequalities: Democratic Capabilities Research (DCR) in the direction of epistemological justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Critics (for example, Santos, 2014) claim that western knowledge sustains an unequal and unjust epistemological system,  ‘enclosing’ knowledge at universities and creating a dichotomy between knowers, usually academics, and the non-knowers, commonly students and communities. Secondly, homogenising and assimilating northern epistemologies over southern knowledge. This sustains a hegemonic vision of Western ways of knowing as the apex of knowledge constrains. Santos (2014) has referred to it as ‘epistemicide’, because it constrains the wide global range of human wisdom and knowledge. Universities have situated themselves as the major promoter of such an approach to legitimate knowledge, providing a narrow account of diverse and heterogeneous global knowledge systems. But equally, they are themselves, the providers of an intellectual space where, decolonial counter discourses an ‘ecology of knowledge’ can be encountered and integrated, nurturing the respect and coexistence of different knowledge systems and different research methodologies towards an epistemological global justice.  Participatory methods and methodologies are part of this latter intellectual project that has developed into a fruitful and legitimate research area awash with a diversity of theoretical and practical insights, not only related to knowledge democratisation, but also focusing on action and participation. The result has been a very diverse field, which pervasively embraces various theoretical and practical perspectives, often contradictory among themselves, leading to theoretical and practical inconsistencies, incongruences and contradictions.

To take up this challenge, the capabilities approach (Sen, 1999), proposes a theoretical space to reflect and reconsider epistemological, methodological and operational issues, providing a solid people-centered theoretical frame. Moreover, participatory methods and methodologies, which are of interest in this project, have been drawing on a capabilities lenses in multiple development and educational interventions. Nonetheless, this capabilities research area is still under-researched and far from having reached its full potential. For instance, scholars within the capabilities sphere have not yet achieved a consensual methodological proposal such, as a participatory capabilities-based research methodology.

This paper therefore adds to emerging participatory capabilities research, drawing on my PhD project, where I innovatively conceptualise ‘Democratic Capabilities Research’ (DCR), situated in a global south context as a form of cooperative research, combining the capabilities approach and a valued-based human development perspective into critical participatory research movements in an empirical action-based study. The paper reflects on the theoretical and practical implications of DCR as a methodological proposal, answering the question: What are the theoretical and practical implications to introduce a capabilities-based research methodology as DCR? It explores the capabilities approach as an intellectual proxy to understand Democratic Capabilities Research as a research practice, focusing on: practical principles that shape participants’ agency, the research process as a deliberative space of reflection and critical thinking, the role of the facilitator, and the intervention as a potential decolonisation tool. These principles are explored empirically, investigating how DCR might advance more just higher education practices.

The case study is being implemented at a historically white and Afrikaans university in South Africa; a group of undergraduate students are working as co-researchers, challenging persistent institutional hierarchies and their marginal position at the university structures of knowledge production.  Multiple data sources are being collected over two years, including interviews in three different stages of the project, personal journals developed by each of the co-researchers and participant observation over the eight DCR workshops. However, in undertaking the case study, the project also confronts the dilemma outlined at the beginning around legitimate knowledge and legitimate forms of knowledge production.  Thus, the project has to deal with the tensions of non-ideal research settings, and between producing a PhD study and the actual practices of DCR, and how these ‘legs’ of the research both go together and yet are separate.

The relevance of the study is based on an unexplored research area, with endless possibilities of application among the educational and development fields which, observed and investigated under an adequate and trustworthy frame, like the capabilities approach, can provide an original methodological alternative for an ‘ecology of knowledge’, challenging knowledge inequalities and promoting ‘other’ epistemologies that people value and have reason to value. This paper further problematises the marginalisation of certain kind of knowing by ‘non-knowers’, which leads to epistemological inequalities.

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