Calls for Critical Reflection on Colonial Aspects of Sustainability Research: Learnings from a student-led initiative

Authors: Madu Galappaththi, Sarah Ghorpade, and Lowine Hill  |  Environmental Change and Governance Group  |  University of Waterloo, Canada


In the Spring of 2020, our Research Group had been discussing the notion of context and its relevance for sustainability research. We are a group of students conducting research in various geographical settings, but also coming from diverse cultural and ethnic origins, with unique lived experiences, and disciplinary backgrounds. As a group, we were coming to terms with just how critical it is to account for historic and prevailing economic, cultural, social, and environmental conditions within our research design. A few weeks into these discussions, the Black Lives Matter movement took off globally, and our discussions of context took on a more critical and urgent turn. As context encompasses past and present realities, racial injustice, marginalization and oppression, we were compelled to examine research context, and our own position within it, through the lens of imperialism and colonialism. 


We passionately deliberated on how our current research practices have evolved from colonial methodologies, which are centered on Western scientific knowledge, delegitimize other ways of knowing (Smith, 2012), and provide little accountability from the researcher to the communities they work with. As researchers tackling the world's wicked sustainability problems, this realization raised alarms about how our current research processes and practices may reinforce inequalities and systems of oppression. We also realized a critical gap in our graduate training: most curricula neglect to even mention issues related to colonization and imperialism and their manifestation in sustainability research. Further, there is little discussion on the importance of opening up to other ways of knowing; an absence of spaces to enable discussions and reflections around these topics; and lack of accountability for researchers beside ethical protocols. 


As an attempt to address those gaps, we developed and launched a faculty-wide initiative titled Respectful Research that calls for critical reflection on the colonial aspects of sustainability research. Respectful Research is defined as context-relevant and culturally appropriate research that confronts the traditional ways of doing research, and addresses prevailing status quos that may reproduce inequalities (Tilley, 2016). To actually do Respectful Research requires transformative changes in our research practice. This means not only questioning our methodologies, but taking a hard look at our own power, positionality, biases and privileges. 


The first component of the initiative was a Workshop Series for graduate students to encourage critical reflection and action planning around their research. In the first session: ‘Becoming’, we reflected on our positionality, power, and privilege; and in the second: ‘Unlearning’, we examined the colonial aspects of research practice. The final session: ‘Relearning’, we focused on strategies and specific actions to bring other voices and epistemologies into the center of the research process. 


While our initiative is ongoing, below are four key lessons we have learned so far.

Learning 1: Explicit positionality 

Positionality involves the cognitive construction of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’. The Self comprises the identities and values we embody, and how we perceive ourselves as researchers. In contrast, the ‘Other’ is often marginalized individuals or groups that are perceived differently from one’s Self (Kothari, 2006; Abimbola et al., 2020; Pailey, 2020). Through the workshops, participants reflected on the social positions we hold as Western or Western-trained researchers, our intersecting identities, and how power and privilege manifest in our research in subtle and overt ways. We used a tool called the Social Identity Wheel to guide an introspection on our identities, beliefs, and mindsets and how these emerge within research. Through the reflection exercise, some expressed being in the awkward position of the traditional ‘Other’ researching on ‘Othered’ communities using historically colonial methods. Some had to grapple with the privileges that their social position has afforded them within research circles. We also collectively acknowledged that our Western-based training puts us in a position of power relative to our counterparts trained outside of North America and Europe: this affords us greater authority to articulate and legitimize sustainability issues and perspectives within the broader academic community and policy making circles. This position of power also manifests in the relationship we have with the ‘researched’.


Learning 2: Collaboration is a start; reciprocity is the goal

In a word association exercise to gauge the group's interpretation of Respectful Research, the term “collaboration” dominated at the beginning of the series, but was replaced by “reciprocity” by the end. This represented a subtle but profound shift in understanding of Respectful Research. It is not enough to engage with local communities; rather, the implications of the research for the community must be at the core of the design and considered at every stage. This process requires participants to be willing and informed, and their role re-cast from passive ‘subjects’ to ‘knowers, communicators, theorists, and experts’ in a way that encompasses their perspectives, ideas and lessons learned (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2017). 


Learning 3: Nuances and global perspectives need attention

While past and ongoing treatment of Indigenous people is rightfully central to any reflection on colonialism in the Canadian context particularly, the process of decolonizing research must be inclusive of the many and varied lived experiences of colonization, particularly those of other racialized and marginalized groups globally. Discourse on decolonizing research in Canada often does not encompass research done in other countries, or the perspective of researchers who may have their own lived experiences of colonization and marginalization. Workshop participants articulated diverse perspectives on this important and somewhat sensitive point, particularly the tensions that arise for researchers who feel like both an insider and an outsider, or as an ‘Other’ and a settler.

Learning 4: A safe and open space for embracing discomfort 

Decolonization is a messy process. Breaking down the Western-centric mold that has shaped modern research practices and mindsets takes courage, humility, and trust, so that people feel safe to engage in the difficult conversations necessary to enact change. The process was not always easy, opening up was at times uncomfortable and even daunting. But ultimately, working through the discomfort was eye-opening, and a necessary first step. In our workshops, housekeeping rules reiterated the importance of creating a safe space, and facilitated small group discussions helped participants feel secure about opening up and participating in the discussions. While there are many ways to create such a space, for a fruitful dialogue, everyone must do their part to identify the potential areas of fuzziness, keeping in mind that the researchers are not entitled to be taught by the communities they work with.   
So, what’s next? We see Respectful Research as a counterpoint to the conventional mode of research, and one that breaks away from its extractive nature. Movement towards the broader uptake of Respectful Research will take commitment and action among students, supervisors, mentors, and institutional leadership. In the next steps of our initiative, we seek to foster coordinated efforts across different levels of university leadership in a more institutionalized way. Ultimately, respectful research cannot take place without confronting the broader structural aspects of decolonization. We believe this is the path toward the transformation of sustainability research. 

How to cite this page:

Galappaththi, M., Ghorpade, S., & Hill, L. (2021). Calls for Critical Reflection on Colonial Aspects of Sustainability Research: Learnings from a student-led initiative. [online] Available at:


  1. Abimbola, O., Aikins, J. K., Makhesi-Wilkinson, T., Roberts, E. 2021. Racism and Climate (In)Justice. Heinrich Böll-Stiftung, Washington, DC.

  2. Kothari, U. 2006. An agenda for thinking about ‘race’ in development. Progress in Development Studies, 6 (1), 9–23. 

  3. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. 2017. Decolonising research methodology must include undoing its dirty history. The Conversation. Retrieved from  

  4. Pailey, R. N. 2020. De‐centering the ‘white gaze’ of development. Development and Change, 51 (3), 729–745.

  5. Smith, L.T., 2012. Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. 3rd Ed. ZED Books. Pp 256.

  6. Tilley, S. A. 2016. Doing Respectful Research: Power, Privilege and Passion. Fernwood Publishing. Pp 294.