Steal this module! Or: why teach postcolonial science studies to human and physical geographers?

Image: “This map shows the growth in scientific research of territories between 1990 and 2001. If there was no increase in scientific publications that territory has no area on the map.” (Source: Worldmapper)

When I worked as a postdoc at the University of Glasgow, I was approached by a group of Geography PhD students and university teachers about giving a talk on ‘decolonising physical geography’. It became a mini talk that I co‑presented with Dave Featherstone, who focused on the human geography side. I was very grateful to be approached, because, as in other all-white or almost all-white departments, any mention of race in the context of higher education is often considered ‘too far out’. Fellow white geographers often do not feel like it concerns them, or affects their teaching, and besides ‘we’re still struggling with gender’. Students are often much more alert to issues of race, through campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’, but also through related debates that are taking place in campuses not only nationally but internationally. And it is not only students of colour, but white students who find the often all white, all male curriculum strange. At Glasgow, an almost all-white human geography undergraduate class recommended that staff consider syllabi that went beyond white male middle class authors and issues.

While the topic of the necessity to ‘decolonise the university’ has obviously reached geography – the next national UK Geography conference theme, with all its problems (critical commentary from RGS-IBG RACE Working Group coming out soon), is called ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’ – there is too little evidence that things have started to change. Especially when it comes to the geographical sciences, the idea seems to persist that science is neutral, objective, and colour/gender blind. However, as physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein put it in a recent talk at Birkbeck College (podcast available on this site soon), ironically, the most supposedly most ‘objective’ fields, such as physics and philosophy, are dominated by a white male academic culture that associates gender, diverging sexual orientation and ethnicity with lack of intellectual purity. This not only translates into an absence of especially academics of colour, but also a lack of funding for research that affects ethnic minorities (even those who are not so much in the minority) in general. Prescod-Weinstein also feels that this exclusion of alternative viewpoints and issues translates into growing intellectual stagnation in many fields. In UK Geography, we have an increasing number of female staff and students, but when it comes to BME (Black and Minority Ethnic, the official UK term in education) geographers the reality looks pretty dire.

Image: Physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (Source:

The other problem for Prescod-Weinstein is that most science curricula perpetuate the impression that non-Europeans are new to scientific innovation and knowledge production. Often, the view is implicitly perpetuated that white people do the research, while everyone else is being researched – a critique also mirrored in the human sciences by indigenous activists such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith or Vine Deloria Jr. There is a notable absence, for instance, of the Middle Eastern influence on European science (and social scientific method!) and a frequent lack of engagement with other cultures and their scientific discoveries. Conversely, the colonial roots of science are rarely mentioned. Prescod-Weinstein points to the astronomical observation missions by Huygens and Cassini whose aim was to improve navigation to St Domingue (Haiti/Dominican Republic) in order to ‘make the delivery of slaves and export of the products of their labour more efficient’ (her essay on this can be read here). The consequence of such a detached, ahistorical portrayal of science is that science can present itself as being interested in the ‘common good’ while remaining in the service of economic and political power that perpetuates inequalities.

In Geography, there is a similar tension around the colonial past, as the discipline continues produces expertise for resource extraction and the military. This also translates into revenue: many departments – and especially the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers – are sponsored by oil and mining companies, and sometimes old colonial families. This became one of the reasons for the emergence of ‘critical geographers’ who, amongst tackling other significant issues, sought to critically engage with the on-going effects of geography’s problematic past. For Prescod-Weinstein, too, the move to increase diversity ‘needs to become a ‘reclamation project’: an anti-colonial project that seeks to reorient science towards more benevolent goals that benefit all of humanity’. This seems quite a stake. Some critics say that in order to be a totally equitable system, the university has to be redesigned from the ground up, since it participates in the creation of elites and is increasingly inaccessible (e.g. through fees, tests). I agree with this opinion. At the same time, there are people who still have to operate within the current system, and, for this long-term aim to be achieved, people first need to know why this is an aspiration. One way to bring attention to this problem is, I feel, through teaching.

Image: “India’s ‘space women’ (from left) Ritu Karidhal, Anuradha TK and Nandini Harinath. Two years ago, as Indian scientists successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars, a photograph that went viral showed women dressed in gorgeous saris with flowers in their hair celebrating at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in the southern city of Bangalore. It was reported that the ecstatic women were scientists and the photograph challenged the stereotype that rocket science in India was a male preserve. Isro later clarified that the celebrating women were administrative staff, but it went on to add that there indeed were several women scientists who had worked on the mission and were in the control room at the time of the launch.” (BBC NEWS)

There are quite a few geographers, and especially geographers of colour, who are currently looking at pedagogy as well as new curricula that reflect the present situation. Some recent examples from Geography will appear in a forthcoming AREA teaching and race special issue (edited by James Esson). For me, one approach is to teach about Geography as a science – and to teach this both physical and human geographers. The framing as ‘science’ allows for a variety of topics to be explored: the feminist and postcolonial critique of science studies; global knowledge production; the history of geography and science and their ties to (neo)colonial practices. There are many similarities between physical and human geographers in terms of their ‘knowledge making practices’: both types of geographers tend to go on (frequently international) field trips, they share knowledge at international conferences and through academic journals, they apply for funding to national and international programmes, they take part in international collaboration, they teach an international student body, and they are invited to give public talks. All of these tasks benefit from an in-depth knowledge of inequalities in knowledge production.

Practically, there are different ways of teaching this, from a single seminar to (preferably) an entire course, depending on departmental logistics. The content of the proposed seminars/lectures is not new – geography teaching includes a lot of science studies based teaching and teaching on race. It is just that science and race/inequality are rarely found in one module. Looking through curricula across the country, science studies and postcolonial/development studies are not only kept apart, and they are usually only taught to human geographers. And although there is constant talk of joint teaching and project building between physical and human geography, the most obvious cross-over of postcolonial science studies has largely been ignored. With this in mind, I hope there will be more crossovers in teaching beyond ‘human geographers should also know physical geography’. A full module could look as follows (please note, the readings are just examples from a longer reading list – more reading suggestions welcome!):



1 Why look at geography as a science? What is a science? Science and knowledge are terms that are usually associated with neutrality and objectivity. How can uneven global development affect how science is conducted and how knowledge is shaped?

Hacking, I (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge MA: Harvard University Pres.

Kropotkin, P (2014 [1885]) What Geography Ought To Be. In J Dittmer, J Sharp ‘Geopolitics: An Introductory Reader. London: Routledge

Suman, S (2017) Colonial History and Postcolonial Science Studies. Radical History Review 127

Tadaki M et al (2015) Cultivating critical practices in physical geography. The Geographical Journal 181(2), 160–171

2 Global divisions of science, or why look at science’s geography? Why do pharmaceutical industries move their experiments to the global South? Why are most science papers published by Western scholars? How is science funding distributed?

Benjamin, R (2009) A Lab of Their Own: Genomic sovereignty as postcolonial science policy. Policy and Society 28, 341–355

Blicharska, M et al (2017) Steps to overcome the North–South divide in research relevant to climate change policy and practice. Nature Climate Change 7.

Noxolo, P (2008) ‘‘My Paper, My Paper”: Reflections on the embodied production of postcolonial geographical responsibility in academic writing. Geoforum 40, 55–65

Sunder Rajan, K (2007) Experimental Values: Indian Clinical Trials and Surplus Health. New Left Review 45

3 Knowledge controversies: Whose knowledge counts? How are decisions made when it comes to socio-environmental problems? How are the voices of different actors weighted in and across the developing and developed world? What counts as an issue? How are current shifts in knowledge inequalities managed e.g. in spaces such as environmental law or the museum?

Bassey, N (2010) To cook a continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.

Cooke, B, Kothari, U (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books.

Escobar, A (1998) Whose Knowledge, Whose nature? Biodiversity, Conservation, and the Political Ecology of Social Movements. Journal of Political Ecology 5(53)

Tolia-Kelly, D P (2016) Feeling and Being at the (Postcolonial) Museum: Presencing the Affective Politics of ‘Race’ and Culture. Sociology 50(5) 896–912

4 Human, nonhuman: how to divide the world (differently)? Who decided on how we categorise things around us? Who decided on hierarchies among humans, animals, plants and stones? Are there other possible ways of dividing or uniting what exists in the world? What proposals are being sidelined and why? Would a new world view change our current predicament? Why are science and legal scholars so obsessed with taking the ‘nonhuman’ into account?

Kohn, E (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, B (2004) The Politics of Nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Todd, Z (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology Is Just Another World For Colonialism’. Journal of Historical Sociology 29

Verran, H (2001) Science and an African Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5 Science and policy in an unequal world What does it mean to do science and make policy in an unequal world? What are the options and limitations that practitioners have? What are good and bad examples?

Jasanoff, S (1987) Contested Boundaries in Policy Relevant Science. Social Studies of Science 17, 195-230.

Hart, C (2013) High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. New York: Harper.

Hecht, G (2012) Being Nuclear: Africans and the Uranium Trade. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Nelson, A (2013) Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6 Managing Environmental Hazards across North & South How are environmental risks being managed differently in the developing and developed world? What happens in the case of a disaster? Who are the actors that respond and what consequences does this dependency have for the affected countries? What is environmental racism?

Bullard, R D (1993) Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. New York: Southend Press.

Hannigan, J (2013) Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Ngosso, T (2013) The Right to Development of Developing Countries: An Argument against Environmental Protection? Public Reason 5(2) 3-20.

Nixon, R (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

7 The Racial Economy of Science How does race or ethnicity affect science and knowledge production? How does the history of racial science still affect science today? How do scientific methods take ‘race’ into account?

Mbembe, A (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McKittrick, K (2010) Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman. Mosaic 43(2)

Painter, N I (2010) The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rusert, B (2017) Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture. New York: NYU Press.

8 Science and Gender How does gender inequality affect science and knowledge production in general? Do women do science differently? How do imaginaries of gender norms affect science? How have women and non-normative people worked towards equal access to science and scientific professions? What is Geography’s history in this respect?

Agard-Jones, V (2013) Bodies in the System. Small Axe, Volume 17, Number 3, November 2013 (No. 42), pp. 182-192

Haraway, D (1989) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London: Routledge.

Johnson, D R (2011) Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). New Directions for Institutional Research 152

LeVay, Simon (1996) Queer Science. The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

9 Contesting science from the margins What are the reasons for contesting science? What are histories of scientific abuse of marginalised populations? How can marginalised populations contest science? What is the difference between a marginalised population, a marginalised issue? What is ‘fugitive science’? What is the difference between marginalisation and ‘bad science’? What are existing networks that try to change the way science is conducted?

Charters, C, Stavenhagen, R (2009) Making the Declaration Work: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Copenhagen: IWGIA.

Kukutai, T, Taylor, J (2016) Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda. Canberra: ANU Press.

Shiva, V (1993) Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London: Zed Books.

Third World Network (1993) Modern Science in Crisis: A Third World Response. In S. Harding, The Racial Economy of Science. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

10 ‘Decolonising’ Science? What do calls to ‘decolonise science mean’? How has science been implicated in colonialism and how has the science curriculum been shaped by it? What might a science look like that more strongly amplifies its global history and connections? What are the obstacles and possibilities? What could it mean to ‘decolonise Geography’?

Prescod-Weinstein, C (2016) Intersectionality as a Blueprint for Postcolonial Scientific Community Building. URL:

Simpson, L B (2017) As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, L T (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Stengers, I (2012) Reclaiming Animism. E-flux. URL:

Basically, this module aims to

  • sensitise students to the embeddedness of science and knowledge making in geopolitical/economic dynamics
  • expose students to the debates that run across theory and practice, and also directly affect the higher education setting
  • support students in considering these wider dynamics in their own work
  • engage students with a variety of perspectives from across the world, in order to enable students to communicate to across different backgrounds in academic and professional careers

Further reading (suggested by readers)

Mavhunga, C (2017) What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Further Resources

Here are a few further resources from the talk that Dave Featherstone and I gave at the Glasgow Geography teaching away day (19 May 2016).

Useful questions

1) How do we, especially as white academics, develop an awareness of these issues and knowledges?

  • There are a number of really good academic/activist books, articles, blog posts and reports that have a strong relevance for geography (see list at the bottom of this post) e.g. Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.
  • You can also follow specific tags on social media or initiatives specific to your subject (e.g. Black Physicists, Black Philosophy Network, Black Geographies, Race In Geography etc)
  • Look out for events at your local university or geographical area

2) Being reflexive when it comes to putting together reading lists, assignments, or even field trips: how is the subject or field being portrayed?

  • Ask yourself questions, for instance: What image do you have of who/what makes a geographer/scientist? How do you affirm students’ identities as scientists? What overt or hidden messages about science do your students receive by the way you teach your curriculum? How do you learn about your students and connect the relevance of science to their daily lives? (from: US National Association for Multicultural Education) What is your visual narrative in your lectures, teaching and open day materials?

3) What practices can we adopt to support BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and other ‘minority’ students? And to support white students in learning about whiteness as an issue in science?

  • Educate yourself and other white academics about whiteness/heteronormativity/ableism etc through academic and activist literature and integrated this knowledge into your teaching practices
  • There is an increasing amount of teaching resources on the net for both sciences and social sciences e.g. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Decolonising Science reading list, the Global Social Theory project
  • Make colleagues aware that everyone (staff, students) benefits from diversity in the curriculum (e.g. see UCU Black members campaign): young people in general have a more global sense of place
  • There are mechanisms/training in place that can help you (university internationalisation schemes, Equality & Diversity units, Equality Challenge Unit workshops related to the Athena Swan/Race Equality Charter Mark)

4) How can we consult formally or informally with students and colleagues regarding experiences and suggestions?

  • Let people know you have an interest in the topic.
  • Strategies are far from agreed, so it is useful to attend/organise workshops, public lectures and meetings, contact local groups with BME/intersectional focus such as BME staff network, BME student groups.

Reading, mailing lists, contacts

Feedback/additions appreciated.



1 thought on “Steal this module! Or: why teach postcolonial science studies to human and physical geographers?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s