Black scholars demand retraction of autoethnography article

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The African Studies Review is facing calls to retract a recent article by two white Africanists promoting “autoethnography,” or research incorporating one’s own personal experiences.

“We are astonished that such a paper, which presents irresponsible and unethical methods of data collection in African communities in the name of decolonization, passed editorial and peer review and was published,” says an open letter to the journal written by seven scholars of African heritage and signed by approximately 1,000 supporters, mostly academics. “This paper is written for a Global North audience while erasing and appropriating African scholarship and reducing African people to native informants. It propagates odious tropes that have bedeviled the field of African Studies both through methodology and pedagogy such as ‘white saviorism’, and ‘frontierism’.”

Beyond retraction, the letter writers want to know why the article was published in the first place: “We are concerned about what this means for African studies as a field if such myopic ‘decolonial’ scholarship is rewarded. This, again, points to a flawed peer review process that does not deliver the rigor it should. The differential treatment begs the question, ‘Who are our “peers” in peer review?’”

Against ‘Detachment’

African Studies Keyword: Autoethnography,” the article in question, was written by Katrina Daly Thompson, Evjue-Bascom Professor of the Humanities and professor of African cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Kathryn Mara, a postdoctoral fellow in African cultural studies at Madison. Both authors identify as white women and argue against a tradition—or at least an aspiration—among many Africanists of “detachment” and “objectivity.”

Defining autoethnography throughout the article as a methodology that “foregrounds personal experience both during research and in writing about it,” the authors say now is the time for more Africanists to include or center personal experience in their work. Thompson and Mara even suggest that this may help advance the broader aim of “decolonizing” African studies, saying now is “the right moment to examine what role subjectivity and self-reflexivity could play in achieving that end.”

Thompson says, for instance, that many of the graduate students in their department are from Africa, and despite their “intimate understandings of life on the continent, they are often trained to analyze texts in detached ways rather than drawing on their personal experiences and insider knowledge.”

Thompson doesn’t limit the use of autoethnography to African Africanists, however, and they explain how they came to embrace it after meeting and marrying a Zanzibari man and converting to Islam:

At our wedding later that year, my experience in receiving premarital instruction from Zanzibari women launched me into new research on how Swahili women talk about, and teach one another to talk about, Islamic marriage. Around the same time, an anthropologist friend was researching converts, and she interviewed me about how I learned about my new religion. An arts-based ethnographer herself, she encouraged me not to limit myself to Zanzibari women’s experiences but also to incorporate my own, suggesting some readings on autoethnographic methods.

While speaking with Swahili women about their private lives and recording the intimate advice they gave to new brides, I made two realizations that profoundly affected my research. First, I realized they were talking to me not just as a researcher but also as a Muslim woman, as the wife of a Swahili man, and, for many of my interlocutors, as a family member, which meant I had a near-insider perspective on what it was like to receive such instruction. Second, since I was asking women to share the kind of information about their marriages that is usually kept private and, in turn, sharing it with a broader audience through my scholarship, it seemed only fair that I be equally willing to share my own private matters. It took some time to figure out how much of myself to share in my writing, but eventually, I began exploring autoethnography in earnest in conference presentations and publications.

Thompson and Mara don’t suggest that they’ve invented autoethnography (which has long existed), and they discuss at length various opportunities for collaborative autoethnography, such as crediting research participants for their ideas and doing research together with them. Their critics nevertheless fault them (and the journal) for thinking it was a good idea for two white women to suggest centering personal experience in research involving African people, especially in the name of decolonization.

“Instead of actually being mindful of power and positionality, the authors instead co-opt autoethnography—a methodology that should be used to advocate empowerment within postcolonial discourses—to grant themselves authority to speak for African people,” the demand-for-retraction letter says. “This reflects a growing trend in disconnecting the logics of decolonization from its liberatory praxis to ‘campfire decolonization’, which replaces engaged critique of theory with a warm and safe space under the misappropriation of inclusion and equality frameworks.”

Other, specific, criticisms of the article (and, again, the journal), include the following (in the seven scholars’ words):

  • “We are deeply disappointed at the extent to which this paper promotes harmful and extractive research practices in our communities, particularly through the reconfiguration of autoethnography as a means to undermine informed consent. One of the authors offers an interpretation that dangerously leans towards advocating breaching confidentiality and the fundamental ethics of ethnographic research throughout the article. They use their marital rites into Zanzibari culture to talk to Swahili women whose ‘information … usually kept private,’ as evidenced in this article and fully presented in another, is ‘exposed’ for intellectual voyeurism. It is not clear whether express consent was sought or permission was given in that exercise.
  • “The publication of this method also reflects the double standards in the review process. African scholars are expected to decentre themselves and their epistemic traditions, or risk lacking objectivity. We were incensed by the authors’ declaration that ‘[African scholars] are often trained to analyse texts in detached ways’, as a means of justifying ‘outsider’ interpretation of their lives (p. 4). Conversely, African scholars are not easily afforded entry into privileged, secret, or sacred spaces outside of their own communities to write about other people’s lives in such a manner, reflecting again a lack of understanding and appreciation of power dynamics.
  • “The authors, in fact, erase a long history of innovative autoethnographic writing that comes from the African continent and that has been consistently ignored by Western-dominated African studies.”

The letter was written by Wunpini Mohammed, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Georgia; Chisomo Kalinga, Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh; K. Rene Odanga, graduate assistant in the department of African studies and research at Howard University; Ruby Zelzer, an independent scientist; Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede, associate editor of World Politics Review; Furaha Asani, an independent scholar and writer; and Ruth Ngozika Agbakoba, postdoctoral research fellow in health-care innovation at New York University.

Not a Debate

Kalinga, who fielded questions for her colleagues Monday, said via email, “As African scholars, some of whom have done work on decolonization, we are not interested in having our humanity as scholars and research subjects debated.” Kalinga added that the letter writers seek to distance themselves “from any news framing published in Inside Higher Ed or elsewhere that present this issue as a debate rather than a legitimate concern about doing harm in African communities.”

Neither Thompson nor Mara responded to requests for comment.

Benjamin Lawrance, editor in chief of the African Studies Review and a professor of history at the University of Arizona, said the journal’s editorial board meets Friday but declined immediate comment on the demand for retraction.

While the letter writers see the autoethnography push as a sufficiently threatening to African communities to transcend typical academic debate, some ideological allies struggled over whether calling for retraction was the best way to challenge Thompson and Mara. Africanist Timothy Burke, a professor at Swarthmore College, wrote in a Substack essay called “Academia: Retract or Attack?” that he was wrestling with signing the letter, even though he agreed with much of it.

Thompson and Mara’s essay “is trying to inaugurate what it sees as a new genre of scholarly writing in African studies via encouraging white Euro-American scholars to focus extensively on themselves while ostensibly writing about African cultures, societies or histories,” wrote Burke. “I understand all too well why being a white scholar writing in African or Black Studies seems more than ever to be a tenuous position to be in, but the answer to that dilemma is most definitely not, ‘Well, let me focus more on myself.’”

Burke had other critiques for the article, as well, including that it was “a bad example of a bad genre of academic writing,” a genre in which authors lay “claim to methodological and theoretical novelty” without having fully engaged with the pre-existing literature on that supposed novelty.

Burke said the “only real uncertainty” was this: “There’s an argument that says you use peer review—and retraction—primarily to stop work that has serious factual errors from being published, and secondarily to make sure that work that is published is making some form of substantive contribution and is also properly acknowledging the work of other scholars and other knowledge producers. That argument often says, ‘But peer review shouldn’t be used to stop something that is philosophically, interpretatively, substantively wrong: what you do with that kind of publication is critique it, perhaps harshly, as part of the public work of scholarship.’”

It’s possible that the “accumulated issues” around the article—“method and methodological ethics, issues with how it envisions ‘autoethnography’ in relationship to this field, issues with its accuracy in characterizing the historiography of reflexivity in the field, issues with not really engaging the references it cites”—meet the threshold for retraction, he wrote. Or “maybe a critique of the article—including the letter calling for its retraction—is a more appropriate response.”

Burke said Monday he didn’t sign the letter, in the end, as “it’s important not to use retraction as a mechanism of critique, and I think on reflection this would be the case for this article.”

Others said signing the letter was the obvious choice.

“Thanks Chisomo and team for doing the work that reviewers should have done, and sorry about the emotional and intellectual labour this takes. It’s appreciated!” Adriaan van Klinken, professor of religion and African studies at the University of Leeds, told Kalinga on Twitter.

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