The South as a laboratory (again)? Dealing with calls for “alternatives” in the North

Guilherme Cavalcante Silva 
February 13, 2023 | Reflections

This piece was adapted from a presentation made at a student-led panel at the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CALACS) Conference 2022, held on August, 24, at the University of Toronto. The panel was titled “Transgressive Methods and Methodologies from the South” and was co-chaired by Luisa Isidro Herrera, a PhD student in Anthropology at York University, and myself. 

The idea of holding a panel on transgressive methods started with a sense of unrest developed in our (the panel organizers) common experience as graduate students in North America. At first, unrest at the overwhelming presence of North American literature in an “Introduction to Anthropology”-course we took together. Consequently, unrest with the types of concerns, controversies, and alternatives raised by that literature as “urgent matters” which to us seemed to be far from controversial or particularly out of the ordinary. We were baffled at the fact that the “dead-ends” of Western epistemologies were clear for the scholars we read, who all called for alternatives, but they all seemed unable to move beyond the canonical literature we were reading ad infinitum. What was the reason for that?

I would like to take this space to reflect on some of my experiences during my first year of education (PhD) outside my home country (Brazil) and in North America. They come from courses I have taken, interactions I had within the program, funding applications I put together, and conferences in which I took part.

A continuous form of historical colonial exploitation highlighted in the decolonial literature is the idea of the South as a laboratory, a dispensable space to test technologies, research, and practices (Oliveira, 1973, Mbembe, 2008). I concur here that the constant institutional expectations (in aspects including syllabi and funding) for researchers from the South to come up with “alternatives” to problems in Western thinking are an updated form of colonial practice in academia. In this renewed form, the South is seen as a laboratory again – this time a laboratory for alternatives to the failures of Western epistemologies.

One thing that was clear to me from the very start was the value given to internationality and international participation in the university (Hamann & Zimmer, 2017). That value is seen in the quantitative parameters set by institutions and funding agencies to evaluate curricula from scholars (Yemini, 2021) as well as the impact-factor of journals and academic programs. The transformation of international collaboration between academics and institutions into a form of asset to ensure a better position in the academic market is a very fascinating topic that goes to the heart of many problems within academia, including the persistence of the South as a laboratory in North American academia. However, I dare not go too deep down that path for now. 

In my PhD program, the first few meetings with the faculty showed me that receiving international students was a reason for pride. In the first few classes, I heard quite a few times from faculty and colleagues how important hearing contributions from non-Western countries were to broaden the discussion. Still, most of these discussions came from ethnographic accounts performed by North American scholars in the South and compared to, or written in light of, issues thoroughly discussed in North American academia (in my research, those would be privacy issues and/or Big Tech power). 

Courses offered many readings of interesting fieldwork and interviews with Southern actors (interestingly most of them activists). However, few of these works actually built their theoretical framework or research questions from dialogue with local scholarship. The names of established field scholars and European thinkers were still setting the ground for the research. What has been called the global turn in STS was clearly being conducted “as a Euro-American-centric research program” (Kervran et al, 2018: 281). When I commented about how certain current discussions about the topic of science policy were already in vogue in South America during the 1970s, the language barrier (a.k.a. the lack of proficiency in languages such as Spanish and Portuguese) and the lack of publishing from South American scholars in English-language journals were often pointed out as the main reasons for the lack of dialogue with that literature. Such a problem did not seem to take place with texts in French or German, pointing to the historical grounds of STS traditions on German, French and British theories and philosophies.

Still, never has the Global South been more popular than now. The number of publications with terms like “Global South” in STS journals has been growing exponentially since the beginning of the last decade (e.g., Silva, 2019). Then why is it that the more I heard about the Global South, the more I was rereading Latour, Foucault, Deleuze, and other established Euro-American scholars? 

Interest in the Global South is on the rise in STS. At the hybrid 4S conference in 2021, almost a hundred panels or roundtables involved the term “global south”.

In Canadian funding applications, I am constantly reminded of how alluring it is for grant evaluators to see my research investigating the Global South or seeking to relate to marginalized groups or nations. Fieldwork and data collection from these contexts are more than incentivized. At the same time, bringing literature on, for instance, science and technology policy from Argentina or Brazil for my grant proposals was discouraged by senior STS scholars as the language barrier and unfamiliarity with the authors could complicate things for me. In this context, the Global South appears to be an exotic source of data but not of theory or analysis. 

Good intentions do not matter as much as rethinking the very methodologies of “othering” so entrenched in academic research in North America. This has been especially true for fieldwork-based methods which always imagined themselves, as Audra Simpson pointed out, “to be the voice of the oppressed” (2007: 67). Intentions end up not only hindering the political role of the researcher but also situating the researched as the one who is always at the end point of knowledge production and power relations. 

What I was seeing from the vantage point of an university in the Global North was the Global South being called upon as a laboratory, one whose goal is to add more and more fuel to the very epistemological and methodological grounds that maintain Western scholarship. Behind the call for “alternatives” is the same methodological drive that put “the other” as a proxy for the construction of universal knowledge (Subramaniam et al, 2017). 

Amidst all this, we, international students from Latin America and other regions are constantly dealing with calls for bringing “alternatives” for the failures of Western thinking in our research, in the conferences we participate and/or organize, in the comments we bring to courses we take, all this on top of being asked to constantly prove our right to take part in a Global North institution for both institutional and governmental authorities. Should I explore the opening brought up by the rise of the Global South as a virtue in North American academia and keep the fantasy of the “noble savage” alive in exchange for academic success in a stable academic environment, the opposite of what I had in my home country? For me, as a second year PhD student who is just starting his journey, answering that question involves choosing what kind of knowledge I want to produce and what kind of future I want to have in research. 

Guilherme Cavalcante Silva is a PhD Student in Science and Technology Studies at York University, Canada. Guilherme is interested in knowledge production, sociology of expectations, and science policy in the Global South. He is interested in science-policy relationships and what informs policy makers’ understanding of AI.

Published: 02/13/2023