Working Group 1: Is the truth out there for us to show? Reflecting on epistemologies and ontologies in development research.

Minna Hakkarainen, University of Helsinki (

Henni Alava, University of Jyväskylä (

As a field of research, Development Studies is commonly expected to produce authoritative knowledge – a “true” account of the problems affecting the world, and, based on this knowledge, of ways in which the world could be bettered.

Yet many contemporary social scientists draw from, among others, feminist and postcolonial philosophies of knowledge to emphasise that there actually is no single truth that can be objectively verified. Rather, they highlight that societies consist of multiple realities, and that the world can only ever be known from a particular vantage point. They also emphasise that the stories that are told of the world, and the ways in which they are told, matter: they influence how the world is acted upon. Our views of ‘development’; of ‘society’, of ‘conflict’, of ‘women’, of ‘environment’ limit the horizons of our scholarly imagination. When transferred to the world of policy and practice, these views also legitimise action and inaction.

This presents development scholars with a number of crucial questions: how can we approach and narrate multiple realities in ways that advance our understanding on socially relevant issues? What would it mean to take context, positionality, and the incompleteness of all knowledge seriously in our research designs? We welcome participants to present theoretical papers, or reflections drawing from their own research, that examine what relevance epistemology and ontology have, or should have, for development research.


1. ‘Fala minha Irma’ (Speak My Sister): Sharing women’s stories through collaborative film making and pop up cinemas in Mozambique. Karen Boswall (Multi-Media Presentation Proposal)

The myriad of truths and realities in the world and the complex choices being made based on them has been captured and shared through film and video since the technology was first invented over a century ago. For much of this time, such films have been accompanied by questions regarding the vantage point and positionality of the film-maker, and whose ‘truth’ the films are representing. ‘Fala Minha Irma’ (Speak My Sister) is a collaborative film training and distribution initiative aimed at ensuring the stories told of Mozambique, and especially Mozambican women, are in the hands of the subjects themselves. 30 young Mozambican researchers, musicians and film-makers travelled across the country conducting audio-visual research into Mozambican women’s creative response to the challenges they face in their lives. The resulting films were shared in pop-up cinemas across the country and are still being screened nationally and internationally, while new films continue to add to the diversity of voices heard. In this multi-media presentation, I will reflect on some of the logistical, conceptual and ethical challenges encountered in bringing this ambitious initiative to fruition. I will show clips from the finished films of ‘Fala Minha Irma’ alongside ‘making of’ footage and extracts from interviews with some of those involved and ask what can be learned from such an experience. I will show how, in collaboration with existing institutions and relatively small amounts of logistical and financial support, such sustainable initiatives can continue to have an impact long beyond any ‘project’ timelines. I will show how, when in the hands of those with the technology and training, films can open minds and inspire, bringing the joy and pain of lived situations to others, revealing the gaps and the silences beyond speech, exploring not just what is said by others, but what is not said, what is felt, what is implied. I’ll show how, through metaphor and allegory, music and dance, new worlds can be opened up, the complexity of the choices of others can be seen from a new vantage point, and oft-silenced voices heard.

2. Methodological Nationalism and the Impossibility of Achieving Global Development Goals. Charles Gore.

This paper focuses on methodological nationalism in development research and its practical consequences for achieving global development goals such as the MDGs and SDGs. It defines methodological nationalism as a specific form of explanation in which national facts (such as the share of the population living in poverty) are explained by national factors (such as the level of education of the population, excessive population growth in the country, corruption, inappropriate national policies). Essentially methodological nationalism affects, to use Amartya Sen’s language, the “informational basis” of explanations by restricting the spatial frame through which a social scientist views the world. Factors outside the national frame, which may be either happenings in other countries or global processes, are regarded as having insignificant explanatory force.

Methodological nationalism is prevalent in development research but it has become increasingly inadequate as a form of explanation as global interdependence has increased and as development research has expanded to seek the achievement of global outcomes as well as national outcomes.  It persists for political reasons. In diplomatic negotiations, it rationalizes particular forms of action and inaction. In short, methodologically nationalist explanations shift the responsibility for development trends in poor countries away from the working of global systems and rich-country policies to the poor countries themselves.

The paper examines whether it is possible to achieve global development goals if the policies designed to achieve them are founded on methodologically nationalist explanations of outcomes.  It argues that it is impossible. But the reasons depend on the nature of the goals and can be either ontological or epistemological. This is illustrated using examples of reducing international inequality, resource decoupling and ending extreme poverty.

The need for alternative forms of explanation which encompass wider-than-national processes is emphasized. Unfortunately we are prisoners of methodological nationalism. The energy of critical scholarship has also been channelled into analyzing local collective action, meanings and experience rather than deepening the conceptualization and understanding of elusive “global processes” in a way which recognizes multi-scalar interrelationships, including the global, national and local levels.

3. Co-Decolonizing Theory and Practice in Development Studies Tiina Seppälä, University of Lapland

Critical debates on the ways in which colonial power relations and Eurocentric knowledges are (re)produced in Western epistemologies have emerged in both development studies and IR, and are transforming, although slowly, the ways in which knowledge is produced. In my paper, I draw on post-colonial and feminist authors who argue that scholars should create collaborative research agendas and mutually generative processes of knowledge production based on more egalitarian relations of power/knowledge; that the aim should not be to represent or ‘know’ others but to support knowledges otherwise ignored; and that in breaking down conceptual and theoretical categories of knowledge, it is important to centralize especially the knowledge of colonized women located at epistemological margins. In the paper, I introduce the theoretical-methodological framework I am trying to create for co-producing knowledge with marginalized groups. For this purpose, I have developed the concept of ‘co-decolonizing’, which refers to a process or practice by a group of people (who may come from similar or different backgrounds and may be affected by various forms of colonialism in diverse ways) that aims at collectively transforming Eurocentric knowledge systems and knowledge-practices that are based on the legacy of colonialism and often also supported by new forms of colonialism (neo-colonialism).

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