In Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, the scholar delves into four different but essentially interrelated areas. In Chapter 4, she gives an overview of the manners by which colonizers and travellers knowingly and unknowingly conducted “research” on indigenous cultures in various foreign and “primitive” lands. In Chapter 2, Smith describes the perspective of the West and how that inherently limited (and, arguably, tainted) the western travellers’ perceptions of the cultures they encountered. In Chapter 3, Smith hits on what I believe to be the most problematic element: the way in which Western studiers have “defined” what they have encountered, and, subsequently, how they attempted to bring it into line to suit their needs and assumptions. In other chapters, Smith relates some specifics regarding some problematic ideas in imperialism, including blatant cultural discrimination and utterly flawed assumptions.
To me, the most interesting aspect of Chapter 4 was Smith’s way of explaining the Western travellers’ motives. She cites two main motivating factors: the quest for “new scientific knowledge” (78) and “God’s work” (79). These are explored and broken down, and Smith makes it clear how the assumptions of the Westerners are often extremely biased. For example, I particularly liked her exploration of the way in which explorers gained fame from their work, while “their ‘informants were relegated to obscurity, their colonial activities seen as unproblematic, and their chronic ethnocentrism viewed as a sign of the times” (82). That was probably the best summary of colonialism as-it-happened that I’ve yet seen. Another point I found quite insightful was her argument that “by ‘demonstrating’ that conquest and then migration were integral to indigenous patterns of settlement it suggested that these were natural and universal processes of human settlement which, under Western modes of colonization, were much more civilized and humane” (87). Smith argues that, by comparison, Westerners really just wanted to reassure themselves of their own dominance.
In Chapter 2, Smith points out a very interesting paradox: “Human nature, that is, the essential characteristics of an individual person, is an overarching concern of Western philosophy even though ‘human’ and ‘nature’ are also seen to be in opposition to each other” (48). Although I agree with what Smith says about this, I would also add that many aspects of western society in the late 19th century had already put very significant distance between humans and their “nature,” such as the extensive religious system (not just dogma, but widespread enforcement and stigma) and the emergence of industry and even more efficient means of feeding (and thus gathering) very large numbers of people in the same place. I would argue that, as misguided and damaging as western travellers’ actions were in interacting with indigenous cultures, they were to a very real extent products of the societies encouraged by their leaders for hundreds of years.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books, 1999. Print.