Academic colonialism

When discussing mine and others suggestion for the SIPS unconference to at some point in the future be (co-)hosted in Asia, for example at IGDORE on Bali (we’ve offered to do it for free), I today came across the term “academic colonialism” (see academic imperialism) on Twitter:

This is a very important discussion that I think quickly could get infected and hurtful if occurring on Twitter. It’s indeed a difficult topic to discuss, and this is why it is so very important to actually discuss it properly.

First of all I want to ask Dr. Lisa DeBruine if the post was in any way aimed at (e.g.) IGDORE’s Bali Campus? Please do not read this as an accusation or irritation of any kind; I warmly welcome criticism of IGDORE and/or our Bali Campus. This is the first time I’ve encountered the term academic colonialism or the Bali Campus possibly being criticized for being part of it. I genuinely want to hear colleagues’ honest thoughts on our projects, so please do not hesitate to share them. IGDORE is an ongoing project where we’re trying our best to build a sustainable new type of academic institution. Such a project must be thoroughly disseminated in order to grow in a positive direction. IGDORE is being built to improve science and the quality of life for academics/students; two aims that we believe are strongly related. We’re not doing this (only) for ourselves; we’re also doing it for you, your colleagues, students, your families, etc. Questions, criticism, discussions - it’s all crucial to us!

A possible starting point for the discussion

Lisa’s Twitter post made me think of something that I’ve been pondering about since 2015 when I left my country of origin. Migrants moving from high income countries to low- and middle income countries are considered expats, while migrants moving in the opposite direction are considered immigrants. This distinction is made regardless of the reason behind the migration. Reasons that may be shared among migrants regardless of direction include work; family; private financial stability; different social, cultural or political values than those typically expressed or shared by the majority of people in the country of origin. Thus, the reason behind the migration is NOT considered when we select which word to use when referring to a migrant; only geographical directions of the migration.

As a consequence, we have immigrants working in WEIRD academia and expat academics working in developing countries. The former is generally considered to be a morally good thing, while the latter might be morally questioned due to e.g. academic colonialism.This is a problematic simplification because it reinforces the invalid distinction between expats and immigrants which in turn is counterproductive to the strengthening of societal justice and development.

I personally refer to myself as an immigrant in Indonesia. Some claim, however, that immigrant is a misleading term if not aiming to stay for the rest of your life in the country. I find this an invalid argument because people do feel comfortable calling someone an immigrant in high income countries even if that person plans to e.g. retire in the country of origin. However, if we do want to use an even more neutral term then I suggest the word “migrant”: people moving from one country to another are migrants.

As migrants, we share many challenges. These may include integration, culture clashes, legal and social discrimination, and struggles with cultural and national identity. Migrants from or to certain countries will have benefits and challenges that migrants from or to other countries do not.

On a few occasions have I mentioned that IGDORE’s Bali location probably is counter-productive for IGDORE in gaining academic credibility internationally; it would have been better for us had we set up the first facility in a remote part of Indonesia that is never visited by Western tourists, or if we had set it up in a Western country. Why? Because Bali is by many in the West considered a paradise destination and it is therefore assumed that we’re doing something shady or that we can’t be a serious academic institute if choosing such an island as our first non-virtual location. We all have our expectations on how a serious researcher from the West should act and behave if working in a developing country. Maybe lots of sweat, tears, simple shelters, “going native” and risking our lives in the struggle to do something good for the country we’re working in? An air-conditioned coworking space with snooze corners on Bali may not fit the expectation as well and may be easier to refer to as academic colonialism. In contrast may the exact same type of air-conditioned space become a famous hit if it’s located in e.g. Western Europe - completely excluding people from developing countries to make use of the space.

This makes me think of a friend of mine who spent some months in a poor rural village in the Namibian desert. No electricity, no water, no water closets. On Christmas eve was he as usual enjoying the beautiful compact silence that only occurs in a village without these things, when there suddenly appeared a very loud noise from a TV: the whole village had gathered around a small TV that was connected to a car battery. It was not until a long time afterwards he realised how morally immature he had been to be disappointed.


Hi! I was absolutely not thinking about Igdore when I wrote that (I don’t know much about Igdore; I should remedy that). I meant academic colonialism in the sense of a group from the West just going to another country for a week to “tell them how we do things” rather than offering support and resources, listening to what the specific challenges people have there, and working with the understanding that local people should be leading such initiatives and know a lot more than we do about their problems.


Thanks @debruine, very good to know whether we’re talking about IGDORE or not. :pray:

Are the requirements you describe above valid also for researchers coming from developing countries to a conference in a developed country?

“a group from the South/East just going to another country for a week to “tell us how we do things” rather than offering support and resources, listening to what the specific challenges people have here, and working with the understanding that local people should be leading such initiatives and know a lot more than they do about our problems.”

It becomes quite different if only exchanging those five words.

But OK, you want to make sure that the SIPS conference is organised by local people if it’s organised in Asia. (I assume you don’t think the same for organisers in the West; e.g. only Scottish people organising the SIPS meeting when it’s held in Glasgow 2021.) And you want to make sure that people from the West don’t come to the Asian SIPS meeting telling people from Asia how they should do their research. Here’s a few thoughts on that:

SIPS has a very strong diversity agenda. Diversity defined from an American/Western perspective: e.g. LHBTQ. Indonesia also has a very strong focus on diversity; diversity defined from a SE Asian perspective: there are 6 religions and these must be respected under all circumstances. Will SIPS move away from the American/Western definition of diversity if organising the conference beyond N America and Europe? Or will we actually employ the code anyway, risking being part of “academic colonialism” (or maybe just “colonialism” in this particular case)?

What am I aiming at here? What point do I want to make? I think I’m just trying to show that things are more complicated and that what is considered right and wrong is differerent on different places and in different minds. And that we should be careful not to employ double standards.


I think we might be talking at cross-purposes. I totally would be against a SIPS in Glasgow that had little or no support from local academics (e.g., that Scottish members were either prohibited from organising or drafted into organising against their will). I never said a conference must have only local organisers, but a substantial number are required. If SIPS decided to rent a conference venue in Glasgow and organise a meeting where issues specific to UK researchers were totally ignored, I think many people would be rightfully upset. Obviously that is difficult to imagine because there are a ton of UK researchers in SIPS and our priorities overlap substantially with most other current members, but I can totally see that happening if we went to, say, Brazil or Malaysia without involvement by local people.


This is THE discussion to have in this forum, and i am grateful to read it. I have thoughts longer than all the exchanges above, which i hope to write sometime in the future when i have the time. :slight_smile: