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Science That Unsettles

NOTE: This article was originally published on in 2017*


How can we transform societies? How can we help people organize human beings towards the transformation of their society? This process is a science.  To be interested in the transformation of the ethics and relations that exist between humans, institutions, and sets of resources is to be interested in its inner workings for the purpose of finding and taking the best steps towards that change.  [Gu1] That work is not simply the work of professional scientists, it’s the work of every member of society.  In the words of Antonio Gramsci, “all men are intellectuals”.  While in our current societies we generally associate ‘intellectual’ with that of professionals in academe, it’s important to recognize that the work of producing knowledge is done by every member of this society.  Science then as a method, industry, and institution plays a major role in introducing change into a society if motivated by the proper ethical principles that see human beings as not just a means to an end and understanding that no person’s humanity is negotiable.  The responsibility then of the ethically guided scientist is to provide resources to marginalized communities to provide them with the necessary resources to generate dissent and better organize and coordinate their resistance.  The scientific analysis of a social problem is then the first step in understanding how it works and also bringing us closer to working together to solve these problems and build alternative ways of being and creating the possibility of community based solutions. Science is a tool that can be equipped for the purpose of organizing the masses as well as contributing to helping communities formulate what kind of world they want to live in.  Finding out what works and doesn’t work then requires we connect theory to human practice and build more accurate theories based on that human practice and test out different methods, strategies, and tactics to build systems of human interaction that don’t reproduce colonizers and colonized peoples.

Kwame Ture stated that students are crucial to sparking revolution, in many ways, professional intellectuals/scientists have the exact same responsibility. The organization of oppressed peoples under systemic colonialism must be strategic, must have every set of tactics at hand, and in order for us to bring “the world we want to live in” into fruition, we must all be students of history. This requires the construction of trusted relationships between scientists in the academy and industry as well as the communities outside of these formal institutions who have just as much of a right to the production and practice of science with the objective of the transformation of the very social fabric of our society.

“Theory paves the way for practice in that it puts the direction of economic, social and intellectual life on a scientific basis.” – Viktor G. Afanasyev in The Scientific Management of Society (1971:5)


To carry our collective history with us and allow it to inform our actions is to take responsibility for the past, the present as well as tomorrow.  The scientific revolution or European enlightenment began around the 1500s and continued into the 1800s.  During that same time that Europe was having a time of scientific discovery and enlightenment they reigned terror onto the rest of the world.  The scientific advancement of Europe was financed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, genocide, and settler and resource colonialisms throughout the world.  The observations that scientists made about the world were co-constituted by the political and economic conditions on the ground.  Much of Darwinian evolutionary thought was shaped by the conditions of the bourgeois revolution (Lewontin and Levins 1985).  When we take the historiography of science into consideration, the coordinated actions of individuals, groups, and institutions in service of empire as well as in resistance to it highlights a dynamic story pointing to the larger series of political contestations rather than primordial ‘difference’ motivating conflict that has come to define the ‘modern’ world.

Highlighting the history of science and the role of scientific institutions and scientists in the perpetuation of the power of settler state capitalism is not for the purpose of simply telling a daunting story.  History is made up of struggles, tactics, and strategies.  History is a record of coordinated human actions, how we tell that story very much informs what we do now and how we envision the possibilities that lay before us.  We cannot begin to do the work of confronting today’s social problems without setting the record straight with regards to how we got to this moment in the first place.  I point to the connected history of science to that of bourgeois revolution to underscore possibility and alternatives.  Science is a tool, a method of inquiry and investigation and it can be used to build possibilities of equity and justice just like it has been used to cause harm in the world and generate profit for a few.  Applying a scientific analysis to how this happened reveals possible pathways to other ways of being.  Science (theoretical, natural, applied, social) is a useful tool for bringing those other ways of being into existence.  Hence, what matters is HOW we use science, as well as WHO has access to it, and for WHOM science is done in service of.


“…decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically. This is precisely why decolonization is necessarily unsettling, especially across lines of solidarity. “Decolonization never takes place unnoticed” (Fanon, 1963, p. 36). Settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone.” – Eve Tuck & Wayne K. Yang in “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor” (2010:7)

To discuss these histories as well as their contemporary manifestations is to highlight an important point: settler and resource colonialisms are PROCESSES not EVENTS (Tuck & Yang 2010).  Settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone and does not go unnoticed (Fanon 2004; Tuck & Yang 2010).  Events signify transformations in the structure of society that occurred in the past and events are commonly passively engaged as something we can do nothing to change.  Structures are cultural schemas and sets of resources empower as well as constrain social action and tend to be reproduced by the very social actions it produces (Sewell 2005: 151).  Structures then are the collective processes of past struggles, strategies, and tactics.  Systems of domination are generated by processes, continued by the collective everyday actions of human beings and can be interrupted, challenged, and categorically converted.  Decolonization is then a historical process, which scientists can contribute to generating through the production of knowledge that does not reproduce damned subjects as well as through innovations in service of a vision of social justice rather than for profit.  Scientists must ask ourselves who our work in impacting, benefiting, and whether or not we are actively working to upsetting settler colonial relations.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon argues that the proof of the success of decolonization “lies in a social fabric that has been changed inside out” (2004:1).  What then is the role of the professional scientists/intellectual in contributing to the change of the order of the world?  Decolonization implies the need to confront the colonial situation.  That means that scientists must come to be consciously aware of how they are situated in socially, economically, and politically reproducing the colonial situation in their everyday actions.  Awareness is for the purpose of responsibility as well as generating actions that actively rail against the reproduction of colonial domination.  That requires the production of work that generates dissent, that shines light on the ways in which those in power generate their resources through displacement and dispossession and mobilizing our resources as experts to re-distribute to resistance movements against Euro-Western colonial violence.


“Social Revolution must therefore have, standing firmly behind it, an intellectual revolution, a revolution in which our thinking and philosophy are directed towards the redemption of our society. … This requires two aims: first, the restitution of the egalitarianism of human society, and, second, the logistic mobilization of all our resources towards the attainment of that restitution.” – Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism (1964:78)

Science practiced without ethical and principled guidance fails to present a challenge to its use to perpetuate harm for profit.  Seeing the inherently political characteristics and uses of science as a tool, method, as well as industry presents a series of opportunities for not just professional scientists/intellectuals but for the commons in general.  A scientific analysis of power and human action is required for us to understand the place and role that professional scientists/intellectuals have in contributing their thoughts, actions, and resources to the creation of decolonial alternatives.  A knowledge of connected histories, set of ethical guidelines, a political ideology different from that of the status quo, and organization in service of anti-colonial resistance point to the next steps in moving understandings of ‘decolonization’ beyond that of a metaphor to that of an actionable objective.  An intellectual revolution requires a transformation in thought.  This transformation is welcomed through a critical questioning of the relations of power between actors, institutions, and communities.  It requires that we ask questions about the distribution of resources as well as question the prevailing cultural schemas that society’s rules about acceptable behavior are built upon.

“…in a colonial situation positive action and negative action can be discerned. Positive action will represent the sum of those forces seeking social justice in terms of the destruction of oligarchic exploitation and oppression. Negative action will correspondingly represent the sum of those forces tending to prolong colonial subjugation and exploitation. Positive action is revolutionary and negative action is reactionary.” – Kwame Nkrumah in Consciencism (1964:99)

An intellectual revolution would then bring about a questioning of the typical ways in which things have been done and a radical transformation of research agendas.  Research agendas rely on the resources of those who control the regimes of truth creating a general tendency for elites to set research agendas as well as penalization of scholars who do ‘undone’ scientific work.  Instead of research agendas being driven by market needs and the interests of elites, we then would turn our attentions to meeting the needs of colonized peoples and their larger struggles for self-determination.  This means thinking about how our work, even if only theoretical contributes to the world of human knowledge and how we can work to share that with local communities while also being involved with combatting settler domination.  Decolonial scientists have a particular kind of ethical vision that science should be practiced with humans in mind. Not helping the state maintain sovereignty over the land and the resources and the bodies on the land.  It means that when we go to apply for that grant we consider what that research would be contributing to.  It means that we think about the things we engineer and who they would impact the most.  It means we consider the ways in which science can contribute to the confrontation of injustice and meeting the basic needs and legitimate expectations of others as well as ourselves.  Structures of domination can be transformed by organized (coordinated) human action. When we speak of systems and institutions we speak of people and none of these harmful institutions and systems can work if we COLLECTIVELY REFUSE harmful protocols, procedures, and inhumane expectations about behavior. To speak of systems and institutions then is to speak of coordinated collective human action driven by a particular set of logics and ideologies.

“Structure is the outcome as well as the source of social conduct…it enables as well as constrains, & above all that it can be transformed by human social practice.” – William H. Sewall Jr. in Logics of History(2005:205)

Ask yourself where you and your work is situated in your field, industry, the larger means of production.  Is your work positive or negative action?  Does it provide people with the power to act or does it simply give hegemonic institutions more tools and toys to exercise power over others?  This intellectual revolution resituates our responsibilities away from fields, institutions, and capitalism and redirects them in service of humanity.  We have a commitment to do undone scientific work, the work that is underfunded, the work that can contribute to policy changes that get resources to underserved communities, the work that generates dissent against an unjust state, the work that provides the public with the resources needed to better strategically organize and dismantle harmful systems and build equitable ones that meet human and not capitalistic ends.  What have you done to contribute to a creation of new men, a new language, and a new humanity?  Decolonialization is, as Fanon put it, “the creation of new men” (2004:2).  This creation of a new people is a project that must be strategically and scientifically informed.  Scientists have a role in establishing and practicing a new ethic that constitutes revolutionary change in service to the colonized.  And if the destruction of exploitation and oppression is not your research agenda; who is your science for?


Fanon, Frantz and Richard Philcox. 2004. The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.

Levins, Richard and Richard C. Lewontin. 1985. The dialectical biologist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970. Consciencism: Philosophy and ideology for de-colonization. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Sewell, William H. 2005. Logics of history: Social theory and social transformation. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Tuck, Eve and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40.

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