Author: Sofia Pagliarin
Why is research about Latin America mostly in English?
Javier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I met Javier last time during a conference in Leeds in September 2017. At the closing plenary session, focused on African cities, the usual round of questions & answers started. Javier stood up and asked provocatively why Global South issues have to be discussed in Global North venues (especially in the UK) and why, if we were at a conference of left-wing, critical social scientists, we were still only talking in English.
In July 2018, I got in touch with him to know more about that episode, not only to disentangle his motivations, but also to what extent the English language as the current lingua franca can uncontroversially be considered as such.
The following text is a synthetic re-elaboration of our Skype talk – during which, by the way, we could talk in Spanish (another hegemonic language?) – structured in four posts and reviewed together with Javier before its online publication on the Slow Science blog.
Sofia: Javier, can you tell me about how you came to stand up during the plenary and ask why we were talking in English?
Javier: Yes, of course. But I don’t think at all that I was saying that we should not talk in English, nor I was complaining about it. My aim was not to criticise, but rather to put under discussion the asymmetry of academic production among the ‘Global South’ and the ‘North’. I was calling for a joint and serious discussion about this topic.
I was making the point that the Global South is a place where we study and conduct a lot of research, but that at the end of the day our research never makes it to the North – it is the North that comes to us.
Sofia: Can you give an example?
Javier: Sure. For instance, in urban studies, we often have Western scholars from Europe or the US that come to the Global South, for instance India, Africa or Latin America, and do their targeted fieldwork in our cities, go back to their offices in the North and then write books and articles about us in English. Books and articles that are not even translated for instance to Spanish or Portuguese, but that we have to cite anyways, because they become part of the academic and official knowledge about our cities.
Most of the time these scholars don’t even have contacts with local academics, just with a select few – certainly the ones that can speak English -, and then publish stuff about us. This is what happens for academic production about Latin American cities. The research and the fieldwork are neither communicated nor shared with local scholars – it stays within the limits of the English language, as in a bubble formed by language barriers – so how can they claim to have understood something about our cities? Which kinds of theories are made out of this process? That’s asymmetry.
Looking at it broadly, you can see that academic production and knowledge about cities in the Global South is mediated by London, as the capital of the largest empire in human history, and all this comes with that legacy. It has to go to London first and then it is recognised, and comes back to us.
Sofia: But there have been scholars that have been critical about this…
Javier: Yes. This isn’t new of course, and scholars have raised these issues in the past decade or so. However, if you look at what happened to the ‘Global South’ scholars that actually raised these questions, they are now all in the North (i.e. Jennifer Robinson, Ananya Roy, Susan Parnell).
First, these scholars come from the ‘North of the South’, so to say – so South Africa and India, where English is one of the official languages, and they have – at least partially – an Anglo-Saxon culture. This doesn’t happen with scholars that do publish a lot, but do so in a local language, such as Spanish or Portuguese. Knowledge and research that is not produced in English, in a way, does not exist. So this is the first aspect of the power asymmetry of academic production in English.
The second thing is that, once they are recognised, they flee to the Global North. These scholars are ‘co-opted’ by the centres of knowledge production in the North. From South Africa or India they go to London, Berkeley or Manchester. It is clear that there is a centralisation of academic production by means of the hegemonic role of the English language. This is the second aspect of power asymmetry.
These scholars are of course very progressive and all – but these scholars set the research agenda about what we, in the South, have to study about the South. This means that studies about the Global South are finally made ‘top-down’.
Javier: Yes, for instance there is this association, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), that includes scholars studying and researching Latin America in different fields, for instance literature studies, history, urban studies, geography and other stuff. But the members are mostly English-speaking, from Europe and from the US, and they do their annual conference in the Global North. What happens then is that these people set the agenda, define themes, write handbooks and ultimately decide what we Latin Americans have to study about Latin America (although this is starting to change in the last 5 years or so).
So in this sense there is an ‘occidentalism’ about the Global South – that is, that knowledge about the Global South is mediated by the North which is very much marked by the language we use to produce such knowledge.
And this is also partly our fault: it is difficult for us in the Global South to communicate, network and organise. We from Latin America are not connected to Africa or the Middle-East directly. This is also because we in Latin America first learn about European history, then about our country, and very little is left to indigenous cultures or to other continents. Everything goes through London, which in turn is connected to everybody.
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