Situating Knowledge Systems – A Summary

Western thought, knowledge, and education systems differ from Indigenous ways of knowing. What this means is that there are certain assumptions that originate from Western European society’s culture, history, and ideology that are quite different from the knowledge systems that are based on the traditions, history, and philosophies of non-Western cultures. Western rationalizations have largely excluded the knowledge systems of the colonized ‘other’ in their discourse, and by this, they produce conditions of social injustice. Dr. Bagele Chilisa has intimate knowledge concerning both the dominant knowledge systems and that of the colonized ‘other’. This is because Dr. Chilisa was born and raised in Botswana, Africa (a former British colony), and educated in a Western academy at Pittsburg University, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and is currently a social science research expert at the University of Botswana. Therefore, with a firm foundation in each worldview, and as an informed response to the prevalence of Euro-Western intellectual domination and the suffering that results, Dr. Chilisa has authored a text, Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012), in which she has placed the philosophies of these two worldviews in conversation with one another in order to form a new framework that she describes as a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm.

Situating Knowledge Systems, the title of chapter one of Indigenous Research Methodologies, provides a framework for understanding the differences between Western and non-Western philosophies and worldviews. In this chapter, Chilisa discussed the need for the decolonization of Western research methodologies, and then she examined various cultural assumptions concerning ontology (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge and truth), and axiology (cultural values). To do this, she compared and contrasted three research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative, within the context of a non-Western worldview. Then, Chilisa suggested the integration of relational indigenous ways of knowing with aspects of Euro-Western research paradigms for the dual purposes of decolonizing social science research and legitimizing indigenous knowledge and value systems by constructing an indigenous research paradigm. Thus, situating knowledge systems, concerns the need to examine the cultural assumptions that shape various social science methodologies, and appropriately make changes that will decolonize the hegemonic Western approach by shaping an alternative postcolonial indigenous integrative and relational research paradigm and methodology.

The decolonization of Western research methodologies is necessary in order to give voice to historically silenced perspectives. Western research methodologies move toward decolonization when the research paradigm becomes inclusive of the relational indigenous perspective. Thus, decolonized research methodologies value relationships, and therefore, they recognize and embrace the notion of interconnectedness. They are formulated and framed within indigenous ways of knowing and they are simultaneously respectful of the Indigenous ownership of indigenous knowledge. They open discourse space to topics that have been historically invalidated or silenced. The dismissal of what might be labeled sorcery, or the avoidance of the discussion of colonization, are examples of such silencing. They also adhere to “ethical standards such as the informed consent of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 3, 4.). Thus, research approaches have a postcolonial indigenous paradigm and method when they are participatory in that they create a ‘third space’ in which to consider the history, experience, perspective, values, needs, and rights of the researched; and when they shift power in such a way as to direct it toward social justice by meeting indigenous goals including the recognition of a relational reality and the right to Indigenous self-determination.

In order to meet the goals of an indigenous research paradigm and methodology, it is necessary to establish a context for understanding how such compares and contrasts with predominant and hegemonic Western research approach. For this reason, Chilisa documented cultural assumptions concerning the nature of social reality (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology), and ethics and value systems (axiology) within three Euro-Western research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative. She discussed them and their associated cultural assumptions in detail by scrutinizing each paradigm’s philosophical underpinnings, their ontological assumptions, where each places cultural values in the research process, their assumptions concerning the nature of knowledge and the meaning of ‘truth’, the methodology each employs, and the techniques each uses for gathering data. Each of these cultural values are relevant, yet especially important to consider, though, is the purpose for which each research paradigm has been designed, because the purpose (and the world view that informs it) shapes what is and is not included in the other cultural assumptions. With this context, Chilisa also suggested an alternative framework for an indigenous research paradigm and she listed the cultural assumptions from which it was developed.

Thus, the positivist/postpositivist approach to social science research has been designed in order to discover natural laws that are generalizable and which are universally applicable. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as the scientific method, which is informed by the philosophies of realism, idealism, and critical realism, which in turn, state that there is one objective reality that is (because of human imperfection) only knowable and expressed in terms of probability. The scientific method, because of its universal applicability, is free from cultural values, except when choosing a research topic. Knowledge, in this way is objectively determined where the truth is based on observation and measurements that are verifiable. Positivist/postpositivist research designs use quantitative, correlational, quasi-experimental, experimental, causal comparative, and survey methods. Scientists gather data, primarily through questionnaires, observations, tests, and experiments (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research is designed to meet the needs and goals of the researchers, and it may not necessarily address “questions of relevancy” or issues of ethics and morality, but instead further reinforce the dominant group and their particular paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, p. 31.)

On the other hand, the interpretive approach to social science research has been designed in order to understand and describe human nature. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of hermeneutics and phenomenology, which state that reality is socially and multiply constructed where each social group determines its own value system. Knowledge, in this way, is subjective and idiographic where the truth is dependent on context. Interpretive research designs use qualitative, phenomenology, ethnographic, symbolic interaction, and naturalistic methods. Researchers gather data, primarily by the use of interviews, participant observation, pictures, photographs, diaries, and documents (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research has a history of unequal power relations, where the researcher has also been the colonizer, and where the result is that indigenous knowledge is likely to be suppressed in favor of Euro-Western paradigms, thus the worldview and practices of former colonized societies might become excluded from the dominant system of knowledge production with the interpretative research paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, pp. 34-35.).

In addition, the transformative approach to social science research has been designed in order to destroy myths and to empower people to change society radically. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories, which state that multiple realities exist, which in turn, are shaped by human rights values, democratic and social justice values, and political, cultural, economic, race, ethnic, gender, and disability values. Knowledge, in this way, is dialectical in understanding, which is aimed at critical praxis and is informed by a theory that unveils illusions. Transformative research designs use a combination of quantitative and qualitative action research, and participatory research. Researchers gather data by using culturally responsive techniques of data collection (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). The transformative approach to social science research has addressed shortcomings of the positivist/postpositivist and the interpretative methods, yet is still not indigenous because it is not culturally situated in Indigenous ways of knowing.

On the other hand, the indigenous approach to social science research has been designed with a very different purpose that is shaped by a very different worldview. The indigenous approach is designed to “challenge deficit thinking and pathological descriptions of the formerly colonized and reconstruct a body of knowledge that carries hope and promotes transformation and social change among the historically oppressed” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). What this means is that the indigenous approach is much the same as the transformative research paradigm in that it is informed by the empowering philosophies of “critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, critical race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories” but it is distinct in that it is also informed by indigenous knowledge systems (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology integrates what is useful in Euro-Western paradigms with indigenous ways of knowing in order to create a new paradigm and methodology that is uniquely designed to meet the needs of Indigenous people.

Additionally, the indigenous paradigm is similar to the interpretive and transformative research paradigms in that it assumes multiple realities, yet it holds the further distinction that communicates the indigenous worldview. Thus, indigenous assumptions about reality hold that there are “[s]ocially constructed multiple realities” that are “shaped by the set of multiple connections that human beings have with the environment, the cosmos, the living, and the nonliving” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Knowledge, in this way, holds that “all research must be guided by a relational accountability that promotes respectful representation, reciprocity, and rights of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology recognizes interconnectedness, human rights/animal rights/environmental rights ethics as integral to the nature of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, and this shapes the approach.

Thus, indigenous research designs are unique. They use “participatory, liberatory, and transformative research approaches and methodologies that draw from indigenous knowledge systems” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). Unlike western methods, researchers using an indigenous paradigm and methodology gather data using “techniques based on philosophic sagacity, ethnophilosophy, language frameworks, indigenous knowledge systems, talk stories, and talk circles” and they use these in conjunction with techniques adapted from Western paradigms (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). In this way, indigenous methodology situates first, the indigenous worldview and ways of knowing and integrates this with what is useful from the Western academy when conducting social science research with indigenous and otherwise marginalized populations.

Thus, Dr. Bagele Chilisa has, in order to decolonize social science research paradigms and methodologies, put forth a postcolonial framework for indigenous research. This framework is inclusive of the Western worldview and methodologies, but it is critical in that it examines the purpose of each of three Western paradigms, understanding that each has its unique notions concerning what it values, and what is real and true. For this reason, the positivist/postpositivist, the interpretative, and the transformative paradigms are not truly effectual for Indigenous social science research, because indigenous ways of knowing are distinct. Thus, in order to give voice to traditionally silenced ways of understanding what is real, true, and valued; Chilisa has shaped a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm and methodology. This paradigm creates a space to conduct research that is not only about Indigenous (otherized) people, but instead is inclusive of Indigenous life experience, worldviews, and ways of knowing. In this way, Chilisa has situated Indigenous ways of knowing at the front, yet along with Western knowledge systems, blending the past and the present across multiple ways of knowing, in order to shape a new future where social science research methods legitimize the experience, perspective and wisdom of historically oppressed Peoples within and without the Western academy. An indigenous social science research framework fosters hope and creativity in order to shape strategies designed to meet Indigenous goals and needs.


Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


One thought on “Situating Knowledge Systems – A Summary

  1. A lot of difficult words to point to the fact that the Western view of reality and inherently Western Science is a cultural reality, one of many but totally dominant.
    Even in times of neuroscience the dual western view (heaven and earth, metaphysical and physical) in practice still exists.
    It is in deep crisis though ….

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