Who and What are Academic Studies on Favelas For?—A New Epistemology is Possible!

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For the original article by Fransérgio Goulart and Rodrigo Calvet in Portuguese published by Canal iBase click here.

Before discussing academic studies of favelas that aim to understand how the relationships between favela researchers and residents have developed, we must reflect on the following affirmation: university is, in the most noble sense of the term, a space for the elite, a space for constructing and maintaining the privileges of a portion of society, both from an intellectual standpoint (that is, the production, preservation, and diffusion of knowledge that dominates the intellectual, political, and cultural field at any given moment) and a social one, since this space is occupied by the children of the Brazilian political and economic elite. In addition, these students are socialized in a particular, hierarchical fashion.

That said, a brief dive into the history of the relationship between researchers and their study subjects may permeate and problematize the affirmation stated above. Since the age of imperialism and colonies, universities worldwide have played (and maintain) a fundamental role in diffusing a Eurocentric form of knowledge production. The modern field of Anthropology, for example, arose from a division of the social sciences, specializing in the analysis, description, and classification of social groups frequently regarded as primitive, underdeveloped, marginal, tribal, or pre-modern, defined by their exteriority and alterity in relation to the Western world, which was regarded as civilized due to its science and techniques. Thus, the works of many anthropologists and the way in which these works were written and communicated were fundamental to the development of the colonization process (Achebe, 1975; Asad, 1973). More recently, many works of social scientists still contribute to the maintenance of social hierarchies produced or intensified in the colonization period, through their insertion in world development programs (Ferguson, 1994; 1997) based on models built in countries regarded as developed, such as England, the United States, and others.

However, for a long time, a number of social scientists have also been striving within the academic space for the decolonization of universities. In the 1980s, feminist and post-colonial critics worked to deconstruct the myth of objectivity within the social sciences (Abu-Lughod, 1990) and problematize the role of the subaltern within these studies (Spivak, 1988). Other critics also reflected on the fact that many studies end up taking advantage of the knowledge and society of the study subjects without offering anything in return (Couture, 2011), be this retribution material or in the form of intellectual credit for their lifestyle sophistications and elaboration of life philosophies. Despite these important reflections, and the fact that various groups of people currently use anthropology or other social sciences for producing knowledge in order to resist oppression (such as a movement by black feminist anthropologists), governments around the world still use different types of social scientists to produce knowledge regarding the populations these governments want to dominate. An important example of this process is the United States, the military campaigns of which have employed a great number of academics from American universities to generate data on the populations of areas where military interventions will occur or are underway, as in the case of counter-insurgence campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (McFate, 2005; Kelly et al, 2010). Considering this, could it be that programs by the Brazilian government, such as the UPP (Police Pacification Unit, both military and social) and PAC (Growth Acceleration Program), which employ a number of researchers (including those from the middle class, such as residents of favelas) to collect information with the goal of better understanding geographic spaces, local dynamics, power relationships, and survival strategies, are using these data for military purposes that could compose a new internal process of colonization of these populations? (Here, colonization and colonialism also reference the “colon” as digestive process. This implies an act of ingestion, where the elite are continuously consuming what interests them in various other populations, while simultaneously discarding what does not interest them in many different ways (Winona LaDuke em Schmidt, 2008).

Based on these questions, we propose a joint reflection on the relationship between academic researchers and the people who actively collaborate on the construction of these studies. An initial point of discussion is the matter of how these participants are viewed and treated: often, as mere informants. This matter is paramount, as philosophers and researchers have already warned that the masses do not need specialists to recognize their living conditions, of which they are perfectly aware (Foucault and Deleuze, 1972). However, within the academic process, these people often experience this knowledge/power system that bars, prohibits, and invalidates certain knowledge and prioritizes other information. This knowledge/power system does not act only in the superior instances of censorship, but also ends up profoundly and subtly penetrating the entire spectrum of society, producing thought and behavioral patterns such as demonstrations of racism in valuing Greek philosophy over African. In this regard, the researchers themselves are part of this knowledge/power system, and many times act toward its reproduction. Our proposition thus aims to foment a debate on the current academic practices and forms of engagement among researchers and the collaborators of their studies.

Would it not also be part of the work for the researcher to fight against these knowledge/power configurations alongside the study participants and oppressed populations? Shouldn’t this struggle both pervade the world of ideas and be translated into direct action? Is it not time for us to break certain dualisms such as divisions between theory and practice, and scientific and popular knowledge? Has the hour arrived for us to believe that part of this struggle is not to simply obtain a plain or objective consciousness, since favelas and their residents possess an extremely rich diversity of different forms of knowledge?

In the debate proposed through the “What and Who are Academic Studies on Favelas For?” events, we have focused on the epistemological discussion to outline that favelas and their mainly black populations are the creators of epistemologies founded both on the ancestral, as well as on individual and collective experiences.  

It is important to note that Frantz Fanon and his classic work Black Skin, White Masks (1952) are fundamental in this (RE)construction. Just a bit of history: in the 60s and 70s, Fanon was banned from North American academia, and university professors who attempted to discuss this epistemology would lose their jobs. Simultaneously, in South America, his work was read in Chilean classrooms; influenced Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Brazil; and, in the 1990s, was studied in courses such as Theology, Politics, Philosophy of Liberation, and Social and Political Thought. This information demonstrates that academics worldwide have begun to understand the relationship between Fanon and other Brazilian intellectuals, such as Guerreiro Ramos and Abdias do Nascimento, consequently comprehending that the epistemology in question has always existed, but was historically censured by white Western Judeo-Christian academia in order to maintain hierarchies and privileges.

What we want to do is to mobilize and undertake an intellectual, militant convocation to decolonize the knowledge reflected in the social institution of the university. Fanon said that we must criticize the white Eurocentric epistemology that categorized us as subjects objectified by science, so that we can affirm ourselves as subjects who produce knowledge, claiming academic representation for decolonization. Mbembe (2016), influenced by student protests in South Africa, recently published an important contribution to the movement of university decolonization, where he suggested the need to democratize the university institution itself. This entails democratizing access to universities and reorganizing the curriculum; bibliographies; the architectonical constructions themselves; classroom dynamics (such as encouraging students to seek knowledge freely, and altering student-teacher relationships); the organizational structure of the institution; the method of evaluating students, teachers, and university workers; and the fact that students are not consumers (given the expansion and intensification of capitalism in universities through their privatization, the increase of tuition fees, and the merchandise logic applied, wherein underprivileged students tend to prioritize studies that can lead to their inclusion in the job market instead of exploring their desires, interests, and higher creative potential).

What we are attempting to produce and enable through the works of Fanon, Mbembe, and other authors, is the construction of a new university model–one greatly transformed in terms of institution and epistemology. We want to eliminate the epistemological structures imposed by racism and colonialism, aiming to open a space for the systematic articulation of distinct forms of knowledge. In other words, we want to demand the epistemic decolonization of academic knowledge. For this purpose, we believe that it is fundamental to reorganize the curricula on which Eurocentric educational institutions are based. However, this does not mean merely exchanging white authors for black, indigenous, and non-white authors in general, but also involves promoting the possibility for students to choose whether to shift the focus of their studies–enabling new social, ethical, political, and technical competencies through this new focus. This means liberating students so that they can see themselves, know themselves, and understand their living conditions through their own eyes and experiences, allowing this understanding to interact with other forms of knowledge. Here, the matter of associability within a possible new focus is important for epistemological diversity to be achieved in universities. As suggested by Essop (2016), this is critical in order for us not to fall into racial essentialism, and to allow us to understand non-white cultures as dynamic and complex–not static or stuck in time, as they are represented in the Eurocentric educational model.

A utopia that presents itself here is to think of “Non-Disciplinary Popular Pluriversities,” or “Pluriversities of Social Movements.” In a non-disciplinary pluriversity, we can explore forms of knowledge, power, and learning that fuel the discovery of epistemological diversity and ways of producing knowledge, without stranding us in Eurocentric categories and disciplines. This is already occurring in Brazil through the creation of ethnic study areas, various educational experiments in the favelas of Rio (including our own, “Who and What are Academic Studies on Favelas For?”, the Initiative of Favela Researching Agents, and others such as the Landless Workers University). However, we should take care not to let those who are privileged, through the very recognition of this privilege and their Eurocentric teaching model, take advantage of these spaces in yet another process of domination.

Fransérgio Goulart is a historian, Political Advisor to the Human Rights Center of the Nova Iguaçu Diocese, militant of the Manguinhos Social Forum and of the Movement of Favelas, specialist in public policies for youth, and supporter of the following movements: Mothers of May, Mothers of Manguinhos, and Network of Communities and Movement Against Violence.

Rodrigo Calvet is a doctoral student of Social Anthropology (Anthropology of Urban Spaces with emphasis on Subjectivities) at the University of Manchester, and supporter of the following movements: Mothers of Manguinhos, Network of Communities and Movement Against Violence, and Rio de Janeiro Youth Forum.