Decolonising geographical knowledges or reproducing coloniality?

23666740_10155225931903693_505717603_nImage of Huw and Joy. Photography by Nina Willment

Geography: “a discipline that may not be ready to, or even capable of, responding to the challenge of decolonisation,” (Esson et al., 2017: 384).

Huw Rowlands (AHRC PhD, RHUL Geography) and Joy Slappnig (CDA PhD, RHUL Geography in collaboration with the RGS-IBG) expertly led Landscape Surgery this week, in a “Contemporary Debates in Human Geography” session concerning “decolonizing geographical knowledges” – a topic that not only formed the locus of important discussions at the recent RGS-IBG conference, but also inspired a forum in Transactions. Together we sought to ultimately explore and unpack the question: decolonising geographical knowledge or reproducing coloniality? To begin exploration of this challenging but salient topic, Huw and Joy posed three key reflective questions:

-What is geographical knowledge? How is it perpetuated? Why should we address it?

After a few moments of personal reflection, we were asked to document our initial reactions to these questions on post-it-notes, which we then used to populate flip-charts posting these questions around the room.


Example of flip-chart being populated. Photography by Nina Willment.

Building on these initial reflections, Huw and Joy proceeded to draw out the key ideas present across four important texts (listed below) which we had been asked to read in preparation for the session. Each of these texts investigated the idea of decolonising knowledges in poignant yet differing ways. There were three points of intersection that emerged across all of the articles, namely people, structures and framing. These then became key focal points in the subsequent discussion.

  • Decolonising geographical knowledges” by Sarah A Radcliffe
  • “Mainstreaming geography’s decolonial imperative” by Tariq Jazeel
  • “The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?” by James Esson et al.
  • “Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) student and staff in contemporary British Geography” by Vandana Desai
  • “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the “s” Matters” by Kimberly Christen.

Huw and Joy then posed three extremely thought-provoking questions to discuss, first in pairs and then within larger groups. These questions were:

  1. Do we agree that geographical institutions perpetuate colonial domination through their structure and dynamics?  If so, what are we doing about it? What can we do about it?
  2. Do we agree that decolonising geographical knowledges and institutions should be determined by those ‘at the margins’? If so, is it being done or how can it be done? If not, why not?
  3. Do we agree that ‘Local Contexts’ is a positive example of how knowledge can be decolonised? How useful is this example for us?


Group discussion of question 2 by group 2. Photography by Nina Willment.

After our group discussions we then fed back to the rest of the room, presenting our thoughts on our given questions.

The following key themes emerged:

  • Language and translation
  • Wider issues of inequality such as access to funding
  • The continued need to have conversations on issues of decolonising geographical knowledges
  • The problem of the continual shift of who is considered marginal
  • The need to work to build knowledge in other languages
  • The idea of co-creation and co-positioning of knowledges
  • Encouraging action beyond the academy
  • The continued need for care in how we engage with this issue of ‘decolonising’
  • Issues of the insiders/outsiders dialectic.

All of those above and many more were highlighted as important issues to be considered and to work through, if we are ever truly going to begin to work towards decolonising geographical knowledges in a meaningful and productive way.


Huw and Joy leading the Landscape Surgery debate. Photography by Nina Willment.

Finally, Huw and Joy led us in a vibrant and animated debate which allowed individuals to comment, build upon and challenge the thoughts and feelings expressed by the smaller groups as they attempted to answer each of the three questions.

After such a compelling Landscape Surgery session, it is clear that questions around decolonising geographical knowledges are both intricate and urgent topics of debate. We would like to again thank Joy and Huw for leading such a critical and stimulating session.

Nina Willment





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