Divergent research methodologies – Diversity and decolonization at the University of Amsterdam

Sandew Hira

November 4, 2016


uvareportEarly 2015 white students and staff from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) occupied the administrative buildings as a protest against announced budget cuts. They demanded more democracy: election of the university board, referendums and an open debate on budget cuts. In the wake of this movement students of colour raised the slogan “No democratization without decolonization”. Through lectures and debates the issue of decolonization of the university was put on the agenda.

In response to this movement the university board established a commission typically named Commission for Diversity rather than Commission for Decolonization. The Commission was headed by Gloria Wekker, a pronounced proponent of the theory of intersectionality. The board of Uva gave them staff and a budget to start a research project. Recently they produced a report titled Let’s do diversity. It can be download at: http://commissiedd.nl/?p=613. This is a decolonial critique of the report. I also answer the question whether diversity at Uva is a step towards or away from decolonization.

Conflicting perspectives

The Commission says that it works “with an understanding of diversity that is enhanced by a decolonial awareness, which we understand in broad terms, and hence is relevant for many dimensions of inequality.” (p. 21) At the same time it is driven theoretically and methodologically, by a strong intersectional impulse [SH: their emphasis]. In the most straightforward terms this means that the existing dimensions of difference that construct society, culture, institutions and ourselves – i.e. gender, race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, disability, age and religion, to name but a few important ones – do not function independently from each other, but co-construct each other.” (p. 22).

The Commission does not see a conflict in the two approaches. I have published a decolonial critique of intersectionality at https://din.today/a-decolonial-critique-of-intersectionality/.

The research project uses a classical Eurocentric methodology and thus diverts decolonizing via diversity to classical positivism.

The difference between Decolonizing The Mind (DTM) – an approach in decoloniality based on the concept of mental slavery – and intersectionality becomes clear in the methodology of the project.

The methodology of positivism: the survey

A big part of the project was a survey among staff and students of the Uva. The result was as follows: “Of the staff, 2,815 respondents filled out the survey. In relation to the 8,998 people registered as UvA personnel, this is a response rate of 31%. 3,841 students filled out the survey, which is approximately 10% of the total students registered (36,649).”  (p. 6).

The survey is a crucial element of the work of the Commission. The setup, questions, answers and processing of the survey show the crucial differences in research methodology of DTM and positivism.

The theoretical framework of DTM attacks the positivist notion of the separation between object and subject in research. The subject is the researcher and the object that which is researched.

Ramon Grosfoguel explains: “In Western philosophy and sciences the subject that speaks is always hidden, concealed, erased from the analysis. The “ego-politics of knowledge” of Western philosophy has always privilege the myth of a non-situated “Ego”. Ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location and the subject that speaks are always decoupled. By delinking ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location from the subject that speaks, Western philosophy and sciences are able to produce a myth about a Truthful universal knowledge that covers up, that is, conceals who is speaking as well as the geo-political and body-political epistemic location in the structures of colonial power/knowledge from which the subject speaks.[1]

The methodological approach used by the Commission is based on positivism. The survey is presented as an unbiased approach that takes all sides into account. It used the statistical method of factor analysis that supposedly brings to the fore underlying relationships between variables that are not immediately visible at first sight.

In general a decolonial critique of positivism regards:

  1. The pretense of objectivity which hides the position from which the subject speaks.
  2. The theoretical flaws in the survey.
  3. The treatment of respondents with regards to ethnicity.
  4. The poor analysis of empirical data.

1. The pretense of objectivity

The pretense of objectivity can be done in an explicit or implicit way. The explicit way is to announce that the subject is objective. The implicit way is to declare the status of neutrality. The Commission chose the second option: “We not only tried to avoid marginalizing people who deviate from the majority and/or a certain norm, we also tried to avoid the marginalization of people who are critical or even averse to the theme of ‘diversity’. We tried to avoid the impression that only people who appreciate diversity were welcome to fill out the survey, or that some opinions are ‘better’ than others. First, we used the neutral announcement that the survey was about ‘belonging’ (thuisvoelen) at UvA. Second, we explicitly addressed those who might feel less invited to react to a request of the Commission Diversity by including an explicit invitation in the email. Finally, we included a wide range of stances in the statements, including stances that are more hesitant or more critical towards how the theme of diversity is generally presented; such as “It is better not to pay particular attention to specific groups, as this jeopardizes the quality of research and education,” and “It is better not to pay particular attention to specific groups, as it entrenches their position as ‘different’,” and “I feel uneasy whenever the topic of diversity and exclusion is discussed.” (p. 6)

The Commission wants to satisfy both the racist and the anti-racist respondent, but realizes that it is impossible and ends up by replacing the concept of racism by the concept of “belonging” in order not to antagonize the racist. Thus she exposes her “neutrality” and her hidden position of avoiding the confrontation with racism.

The framework of intersectionality offers her a theoretical justification, because intersectionality equalizes all forms of oppression and does not acknowledge that one oppressed group (white LGTB and women) can act as an oppressor of another group (the colonized subject).

Equalizing all forms of oppression means that racism can not take the lead in the relationship between different oppressed group. So “belonging” becomes a common theme.

In DTM theory racism is about a struggle for liberation from power structures and institutions. The positivist approach of the Commission wants to avoid the confrontation with power and thus uses the concept of inclusiveness in order to move away from confrontation and struggle. In the same way the Commission uses the term ‘ethnic Dutch’ instead of ‘white’ in order not to antagonize the whites by bringing race into the conversation, as she openly acknowledges: “To avoid the polarizing and racializing (white/non-white) connotations, we refrain from using these particular terms. We refer to these categories as having ‘ethnic Dutch’ backgrounds, and immigrant backgrounds, with roots in ‘non-Western’ and ‘Western’ countries.” (p. 32)

So the Commission made a deliberate choice to push the concept of racism out of the survey in favor of the concept of belonging. This is not an objective choice. It is subjective and determined by considerations of how to manoeuvre between activism and the institutions of power. It is not determined by consideration about knowledge, epistemology or truth. It chose to not antagonize racist structures and sentiments but with the pretense of objectivity and neutrality.

2. The theoretical flaw in the survey

Intersectionality takes the personal experience of individuals as the basis for its analysis. It fits very well into concepts like everyday racism.

In decolonial theory personal experiences are always regarded from the perspective of institutional racism and from a historical perspective. The personal experience does not shape institutions. Institutions – and certainly institutions of power – shape personal experiences. Personal experience are not the result of individual interaction. They are embedded in the history of collective experiences of communities.

These are theoretical questions that determine the setup of a survey.

If we were to set up a survey about racism from a DTM perspective the questions would address issues like power relations and the way institutions operation and influence the struggle between the colonized and the colonizer in the university.

We would start with focusing on the most pressing problems that shape the current position and experience of both the colonizer and the colonized in the university. In Holland these are:

  • The struggle against Black Pete that has shaken up the society and created sharp divisions between whites and people of colour on how to deal with the legacy of slavery.
  • The rise of the extreme right and how it influences the narrative and practice of the anti-racist struggle.
  • The concept of struggle rather than inclusiveness and its articulation in terms of decolonizing society.
  • The persistence of unemployment rates of people of colour that are twice of those of white people. Representation in the workplace is an essential part of emancipation.

The survey of the Commission used closed-ended questions. If we were to use this type of survey’s DTM would have questions like:

  • Do you think that Black Pete should be prohibited in Holland and at the Uva? Yes/No/No opinion.
  • Are you in favor of affirmative action in the form of quota arrangements at UvA? Yes/No/No opinion.

These type of questions addresses institutional racism.

The intersectional approach of the Commission is based on exploring feelings of individuals. So you get the following setup.

The closed-ended survey consisted of statements around three themes:

  1. The experience and observation of inclusion and exclusion at the UvA;
  2. Attitudes toward diversity and inclusion at the UvA;
  3. Attitudes toward responsibility of the UvA in matters of diversity and inclusion.

Answering options were ‘(almost) never’, ‘sometimes’, ‘frequently’, ‘(almost) always’, ‘no answer’, or ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neither disagree nor agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’, ‘no answer’.

The statements are:

Theme 1

  1. I experience or observe discrimination: At the level of the department  
  2. I experience or observe discrimination: At the level of the faculty
  3. I observe practices that I find discriminatory or exclusionary towards myself or others
  4. I experience or observe discrimination: In my direct working environment
  5. I experience or observe discrimination: In other situations
  6. I experience or observe discrimination: In teaching situations
  7. In decision-making processes, divergent opinions are taken seriously
  8. I am discriminated against
  9. I feel that ‘divergent’ culture-related norms and values – such as wearing a headscarf – are disapproved of
  10. I feel uncomfortable with the dominant behavioral norms
  11. Expressing any criticism I may have of how things are done at UvA, will disadvantage me at work

Theme 2

  1. It is better not to pay particular attention to specific groups, as this jeopardizes the quality of research and education
  2. I would welcome it if my direct work environment became more diverse in terms of background, culture, lifestyle and schools of thought
  3. The serious inclusion of non-western perspectives in educational curricula enhances the learning environment
  4. Diversity in terms of background, culture, lifestyle and school of thought enriches the academic environment
  5. It is better not to pay particular attention to specific groups, as it entrenches their position as ‘different’
  6. It is unnecessary to target specific groups, as everyone is equal
  7. It is important that everyone is aware that the differences between people add value
  8. The content of education and research is independent from the degree of diversity among staff and students

Theme 3

  1. UvA must do more to increase diversity among its staff
  2. UvA must do more to increase diversity among its students
  3. UvA should do more to make the university more inclusive and to combat exclusion
  4. I am satisfied with how UvA deals with the topic of diversity and discrimination
  5. UvA is already doing enough to increase the presence of divergent schools of thought in education
  6. UvA is already doing enough to increase the presence of divergent schools of thought in research
  7. If I would report exclusion and/or discrimination, I would be taken seriously
  8. If I would report exclusion and/or discrimination, something would be done about it
  9. If I would ask for support because of my disability, I would be taken seriously
  10. If I were to experience discrimination, I would go to a confidential adviser

The positivist approach of the Commission has a built-in theoretical flaw in how to look at experiences. It regards an opinion as a fact. They are not even aware of the distinction because they don’t address the issue at all.

If someone answers “No” to the statement: “I experience or observe discrimination”, they interpret it as if there was no discrimination towards the respondent. If there was discrimination, the respondent would surely report it.

In DTM opinions provide information about a process of awareness. Someone can experience racism, without being aware of it. In the current opinion polls the extreme right-wing party led by Geert Wilders is the largest party. That is the case for quite some time. A student of colour sitting in a class at UvA or a staff of colour working with his colleagues does not know how many of their colleagues would support Wilders. The growing support for Wilders in society, and thus at Uva, is actually a threat for students and staff of colour. So the experience of racism is there, even if it is not expressed at the level of personal interaction with racists. The student and staff experience racism because of the growing support for Wilders, but whether he or she is aware of this experience depends on the political consciousness. One person of colour might interpret racism as an overt expression of act of racism: somebody makes racist remarks or acts in a racist way. The absence of such expressions are then interpreted as the absence of racism. Another person of colour might interpret racism as the ever-present potential of institutions, structures and individuals to act in a racist way. So the act might be absent for now, but the potential ensures that at some point in time the act can emerge. If a person has this type of political analysis he or she would answer “Yes” to the statement “I experience or observe discrimination” even if there is no overt act of racism. It is all about awareness, not about experience.

Because of this theoretical flaw of not distinguishing between opinions and facts, they do not and can not make an analysis of the relationship between personal experience and institutional racism through the concept political consciousness.

3. The treatment of respondents with regards to ethnicity

The positivist approach of the Commission does not make a distinction between the colonizer and the colonized as DTM does. If a white person says “I experience discrimination that is related to my ethnic background” any decolonial researcher would immediately react “What happened!”. Has “reverse racism” really become part of the conversation? The positivists however don’t see a problem. Each respondent has the same position in the survey. So if x% of the whites in their survey says that they have experienced racism in relation to their ethnic background it is just added up to y% of the people of colour in the survey who say the same! That is what the Commission actually has done in their survey. They don’t see that the experience of discrimination related to one’s ethnic background for a white respondent meant the opposite of the same statement by a person of colour. For the white it might mean “get all muslims out of Holland” while for the person of colour it means a history of colonialism. How can you add up the figures of these answer to get a total number of how the respondents react to the statement?

4. The poor analysis of empirical data

One of the most common critique from DTM of Western science is the poor analysis of empirical data in order to suit ideologically predetermined propositions. A typical example is the rise of mathematics in social sciences. Statistics for social science has been a growing industry. It is based on the idea that there are “social laws”, like there are natural laws in natural sciences. In natural sciences mathematics was a tool to “discover” the natural laws. So positivist scientist thought that the same tool can be used to discover “social laws”.

In DTM we argue that there are no “social laws”, because human beings unlike moons or mountains shape their own destiny by a complex interaction between communities of human beings and the environment they live in. That interaction has different dimensions (geography, economics, politics, culture, social relations including race, class and gender).

The use of statistics does not reveal social laws. In fact it is used in Western science to hide the truth about racism.

That is also the case in this survey.

A crucial table in the survey is table 3.4. (appendix 1, p. 16).

The labels the Commission used reveal their Eurocentric bias. “Ethnic Dutch” is used to denote “whites”, but they are afraid from bringing race into the conversation and therefore use a term that is strictly spoken just nonsense. How can a person of colour be excluded of being “ethnic Dutch”. Ethnic is a generic term. By restricting it to whites the Commission shows its Eurocentric bias.

The Commission uses the term “Western” to denote whites born outside Holland. “Non-Western” are people of colour. Any decolonial person would immediately protest against using “Western” as a norm to characterize people. It is reminiscent of the use of “whites” and “non-whites” during apartheid in South Africa and the USA and during classical colonialism. There was never a use of twin terms “coloured” and “non-coloured”.

Table 3.4 Experiences of discrimination in relation to ethnic background
Staff Student
(almost) never some-times fre-quently (almost) always total (almost) never some-times fre-quently (almost) always total
Ethnic Dutch 90% 8% 2% 0% 99% 95% 4% 1% 0% 100%
Non-Western 69% 26% 3% 2% 99% 80% 5% 4% 1% 100%
Western 81% 15% 3% 1% 101% 89% 19% 2% 0% 100%

The conclusion of the Commission is: “Fortunately, of all respondents who experience discrimination, the majority experiences discrimination not more frequently than ‘sometimes’.”

The Commission poses a value judgement as an objective conclusion. Why is it fortunate that such low percentage of the respondents experience discrimination? The Commission uses the percentage to say that the situation is not bad at the Uva. That is why it is fortunate. But a decolonial researcher that puts the survey in a broader context of the rising racist climate in Holland, would argue that it is unfortunate that the political consciousness is not yet there in UvA to recognize growing racism.

The phrase “discrimination in relation to ethnic background” has a name in DTM. It is called racism. Not sexism or homophobia, but racism.

A decolonial researcher would immediately distrust any study that concludes that there is hardly racism anno 2016 in Holland, where the extreme right is leading in the polls and the debate on the racist character of Black Face has exploded with racist rants in the media.

But a closer look at the table and other data of the Commission shows how crazy the survey results are.

According to the survey white staff experience more racism because of their ethnic background than black student!! Some 10% of the white staff experience racism “sometimes” or “frequently” compared to 9% of the coloured students. What a strange country is Holland where more white than black people experience racism.

The Commission just can not analyse their own data and see how crazy the results are.

We see the same story in the analysis of the results of the coloured staff and students. In the survey staff and students are treated as similar categories, just as coloured and whites are treated like similar categories.

That is why the Commission does not even address curious results in her survey. The table shows that 31% of the coloured staff and 10% of the coloured students experience racism. How does one explain this huge difference? The Commission does not even address the question. But in DTM it brings to the fore the question of political consciousness related to experience of racism. “Everyday” and “weekend” racism does not distinguish in consciousness of the analysis of experience by the respondent. The big difference however can be explained by taking into account that experiences on the work floor related to competition, promotion, salaries, status etc. are of a different nature than experiences related to personal interaction in a class room. The difference in age and life experience also account for the difference in political consciousness.

All these question can be deducted with a proper analysis of the survey statistics. But the positivist and intersectional approach prohibits this level of analysis of the data.

Another example of a poor analysis of their data is how they interpret absolute numbers and percentages. Based on other data the Commission established that 13% of the Uva Student population are student of colour. Uva has 40,490 student, so that makes 5,246 students of color. 5% says that they experience racism frequently or almost always. On the total population that is 263 student. Now put them in one room to discuss their experience, you suddenly have a totally different dynamic at the UvA. The dynamics of struggle are not determined by quantity but by quality. Positivism just does not understand this.


The report of the Commission is not rooted in a decolonial analysis, but in the methodological principles of Eurocentric positivism. This is not a step forward in decolonizing the university but a step backward. The banner “no democratization without decolonization” is replaced by “no democratization without diversity”. And “diversity” means everything but a consistent struggle against racism.

The title of the report is “Let’s do Diversity”. It is more in the sense of “Let’s play monopoly” then in the sense of “Let’s fight racism”.

I have focused on the methodological aspects of the survey. But we can offer similar critique of other aspects of the report (qualitative interviews and policy conclusions). It is sad to see how the decolonial activists have been fooled into substituting decolonizing for diversity.

[1] Grosfoguel, R. (2011): Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality. TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, 1(1), p. 5.

Decolonial International Network