Four approaches to shifting mindsets for decolonising knowledge

By Peter Taylor and Crystal Tremblay

1. Peter Taylor (biography)
2. Crystal Tremblay (biography)

In the context of knowledge for development, what does it require to deconstruct the dominant narratives and personal privileges embodied in our race, class, gender, etc.? And, in a knowledge landscape littered with potential minefields, how do we go about shifting the mindsets that shape the ways in which ‘we’ understand the world and our subsequent values, behaviours, and attitudes?

Drawing on our own experiences, and learning that has emerged through many valued interactions with others, we have identified four approaches which we believe may help to make a difference.

1. Identifying what, and whose, knowledge is valued, counted, and integrated into development processes

Researchers often fail to recognise or value the different knowledges needed to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, because of where knowledge resides and who has generated it. To decolonise knowledge, we need to recognise people as knowers of their experience and weave together knowledges from various sources, including from Indigenous and local knowledge systems. The most compelling narratives in an era of increasing uncertainty are shaped by multiple perspectives and different forms and expressions of knowledge, and by working in a spirit of inclusion and in participatory ways.

The perception often persists that ‘expert knowledge’ is of a higher order to a wide range of other knowledges simply because of the power structures and hierarchies that give it authority. Since power is such a critical element in the struggle for social justice, we have found the concept of ‘cognitive justice’ – or whose knowledge counts – helpful in understanding how and in which ways attention is paid to epistemologies.

Knowledge systems are diverse, multi-faceted and bring locally contextualized ways of thinking and being in the world.

2. Decolonising knowledge asymmetries – learning through research, and as researchers

Doing research provides researchers with a wealth of opportunity to learn about, and address, decolonisation of knowledge. ‘Inclusive’ research methods may not provide an opportunity to decolonise knowledge, however, because this may not be part of the intent, and is often avoided because it is uncomfortable or difficult. The work requires recognizing and challenging the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization and the ways in which colonial structures have prioritized certain knowledges and marginalized others.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed multiple benefits of local participation, including contributing to more effective information sharing, mobilising local life and livelihoods saving networks in the area, and promoting community empowerment, resilience, and trust. Yet, agencies supporting communities still often struggle to integrate participation in their operations, and many are now asking whether inadequacies in international cooperation may open the space for a reimagination of agency and power in the conceptualisation and realisation of development and research.

3. Investing resources to transform existing colonialities

To learn and change, it is necessary to invest. Multiple, diverse knowledge systems need a strong financial and economic base which allows them to grow. Researchers will need to unpack what they have learned about who they are, the powers and privileges they hold, and their ideas and practices of ‘leadership’. They will need to recognise and break down barriers and walls between them and a wide array of other societal members if they are serious about change. They will need to invoke and experience connection and belonging on this shared journey. This takes time and requires thoughtfulness, although this is not to suggest a disregard for the urgent need for transformation of knowledge systems.

The processes required to achieve this kind of change take several resources:

  • Patience, humility, time – to allow for the discomfort of “unlearning” and the wonders of continually “relearning” with others;
  • Transparency about how researchers live and model diversity and inclusion in their activities, organisations and communities;
  • Courage to interrogate history and privilege and to work toward change;
  • Power sharing – recognize inherent power imbalances and make bold moves to cultivate shared decision making in all aspects of collaboration – the outcomes will ultimately be positive for all;
  • Recognition of people as knowers of their own experience; and
  • Financial resources, since decolonising knowledge also requires decolonising wealth.

4. Identifying ‘our’ role as individuals, as organisations, as institutions

What do ‘we’ need to do if we are serious about taking on the challenge of decolonising knowledge for development? We recognise that as researchers, given our identity, positionality and privilege, we need to work on ourselves, which can be very uncomfortable.

We suggest several actions which have implications for our roles as researchers wherever we may be located, and for the research in which we engage with others in knowledge co-construction processes:

  • Ensure solutions are shaped/created by those who experience the challenges being addressed if they are to succeed and be sustained.
  • Establish reflective spaces for inclusive processes, in which participants are aware of and interrogate their privilege and how they can use it to make change that disrupts inequalities.
  • Check and challenge policies and practices that discriminate and continue to uphold oppressive systems.
  • Find connections and ways in which we belong with each other, as communities, on a shared journey.
  • Appreciate that the benefits of decolonising knowledge are not obvious to everyone, nor are they desired by those who believe they may ‘lose’ status or privilege.
  • Ground our efforts in trust, and consciousness of who is setting and controlling the research agenda, and what kinds of power dynamics are at play.
  • Ensure that the expectations of participants, and the gifts they make of time, energy, belief, and sometimes personal risk, are not taken lightly or squandered needlessly.

We would be happy to hear what others feel about these ideas and potential actions we could take as researchers. What suggestions would others like to bring to this conversation?

To find out more:

Taylor, P. and Tremblay, C. (2022). Decolonising Knowledge for Development in the Covid-19 Era. IDS Working Paper 566, Institute of Development Studies: Brighton, United Kingdom. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Peter Taylor PhD is Director of Research at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. With over 30 years of experience in international development, he has research, teaching and writing interests in the theory and practice of organisational development and capacity strengthening, evaluation and learning, and facilitation of participatory and social change processes in a diverse range of international contexts.

Biography: Crystal Tremblay PhD is an Assistant Professor and co-chair of the Map Shop in the Department of Geography and Director of CIFAL Victoria (Centre International de Formation Autorités et Leaders also known as International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders) a United Nations training centre, at the University of Victoria, Canada. She is a social geographer and community-based research scholar with interests in environmental stewardship, participatory governance, decolonisation, and spatial justice.

9 thoughts on “Four approaches to shifting mindsets for decolonising knowledge”

  1. Thank you Peter and Crystal for your very valuable article, which I’ve been very pleased to republish in RealKM Magazine at The republished article forms part of the “Decolonising knowledge and knowledge management (KM)” series

    The decolonization of knowledge has become a key focus for the international Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) community, and at a special event in May, we launched our paper “We have a dream’: proposing decolonization of knowledge as a sixth generation of knowledge management for sustainable development”

    The tangible approaches you put forward have a pivotal role in helping to make the features of the sixth generation of KM4SD a reality.

    • Thank you Bruce for the positive response, and also for republishing the blog in RealKM Magazine. Thanks too for sharing your paper. I think your juxtaposition of decolonizing knowledge both as a dream and as a reality is very important. It’s great to know that our piece appears to offer something tangible to those who are contemplating practical ways to decolonize knowledge for development; I hope others have found this to be the case, and we welcome further suggestions, as well as sharing of examples of how or why these “four approaches” may be helpful in laying out action-oriented pathways to change.

  2. The ideas you’ve mentioned are deeply insightful and challenge conventional practices in research and development, which are often influenced by colonial mindsets and power structures. Here are a few suggestions to enrich this conversation:

    1) Encourage Interdisciplinary Collaboration: While it’s important to recognize different knowledge systems, fostering collaboration between these diverse systems can lead to innovative solutions. Combining Indigenous knowledge with scientific approaches, for instance, could provide a more comprehensive understanding of a problem and its potential solutions.

    2) Promote Localized Research Ethics: Rather than relying on Western research ethics, researchers should prioritize local ethical guidelines. This includes respecting the values, traditions, and norms of the community in question, which are critical for fostering trust and ensuring a more equitable research process.

    3) Develop Capacity Building Initiatives: For the decolonization of knowledge to be sustainable, it is crucial to create educational and training programs that empower local communities and researchers. This could involve academic exchanges, workshops, and resources dedicated to teaching research methods that respect and incorporate local knowledge systems.

    4) Advocate for Policy Changes: At the institutional and governmental levels, policies should be revised to prioritize local knowledge systems and minimize the dominance of Western-centric narratives. This might involve advocating for more inclusive standards of validation and quality control in research publications, funding allocation, and academic assessments.

    5) Utilize Modern Technology: Digital platforms and technologies can be leveraged to record, disseminate, and preserve local and Indigenous knowledge. Technology can democratize access to knowledge and amplify voices that have been traditionally marginalized.

    In summary, the decolonization of knowledge calls for a fundamental shift in the way we perceive, value, and engage with diverse knowledge systems. This involves not just acknowledging the existence and validity of these systems, but actively working to integrate them into the global knowledge discourse in a respectful and equitable manner.

    Here is a blog on the same theme:

    • Thank you for this very insightful set of comments Alemu, and also for sharing your relevant and thoughtful blog. I agree very much that working actively to integrate these aspirations is vital, otherwise efforts can remain at a tokenistic level without achieving the structural changes that lead to real shifts in policies and practices. Many knowledge and research systems are also deeply embedded in the structures and procedures of large bureaucracies which can make change very difficult and slow, for example in transforming ethics processes and in achieving equitable research partnerships and collaborations. It is good to know that there are champions such as yourself for catalyzing shifts in perspectives and practice, and perhaps there are more ways to help bring such efforts and thinking together within communities of practice that span different locations, cultures and contexts. With that in mind, you final point about the potential of digitalization to democratize knowledge (whilst acknowledging that digitalization is also unfortunately used to promote authoritarianism and constraining civic space for exchange of knowledge and experience) is very thought-provoking, and worthy of more discussion!. Thank you again.

  3. What a delightful, simple and concrete reflection on shifting mindsets towards decolonisation. Thank you Crystal & Peter.

    My own work over the past four decades has convinced me that training of researchers perpetuates colonial mindset from the very beginning. A recent international study coordinated by our UNESCO Chair is showing clearly that even researchers trained in community-based participatory research methodology fail to understand the distinction between academic and community knowledge cultures. Recent UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science (2021) reinforce the acknowledgement of multiple epistemologies and an urgency to enable dialogue across them to find solutions for our planet & people together.

    I hope that this conversation is facilitated more widely now, as young researchers begin to enter the profession.

    • Thank you for this positive feedback Rajesh. Agree very much with your comment about the need to reimagine quite fundamentally the training and education of researchers in order to grow an awareness, appreciation and recognition of the role and value of multiple forms of knowledge and experience throughout all aspects of research. This seems essential in order to create any real hope of making progress towards achieving epistemic justice. Would love to hear more of your experiences based on your work, including via the UNESCO Chair – the need for dialogue, and action, does feel ever more urgent!

  4. This is a great piece – very insightful; thank you.

    We also find that so much of our work in promoting support for community-led response to crises (sclr) is about unlearning and challenging assumptions that we thought were solid. The issue on ‘participation’ you raise in #2 is a case in point. It has been helpful to reflect that the current widely accepted norm of getting ‘them’ (ie local people) to better participate in our projects continues to push things in the wrong direction. It we reframe the challenge as being about what we could do differently to better participate in their initiatives and ideas (recognising that crisis affected people are always the first -and last – responders), it can help us to start looking at the whole relationship differently.

    • Thank you Justin for your very helpful comment. Glad you found the piece of interest. Agree very much that many “projects” and “interventions” are still based on “us” analysing “their” problem. Things can of course change. The medical profession took a long time (although it’s still a work in progress…..) to get to the point of asking those experiencing ill-health to actually describe what they are feeling. Creating and enabling, safe and inclusive space for those within any community context to share and reflect upon their lived experiences seems a natural step towards positive relationships and progressive change – but sadly participation is often in name only. There are fortunately many good examples of participatory practice to draw upon and learn from, as for example shared in this great resource:


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