Saturday, April 26, 2014

Research Methods Symposium


In the academic context once a great idea enters one’s life it never goes away. In constant search for truth, such an idea anchors an intellectual in a deep sea of knowledge, so as to capture the inquisitive mind’s unlimited ability to theorize, expound, explain, discuss, inform, and persuade.

Less than a decade ago, in 2006, I met two intellectuals from Oceania at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva, Fiji. As the Oceanic currents would have it we all travelled out of New Zealand. The scholars I am referring to here are Professor Tracie Mafile’o, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Pacific Adventist University (PAU) and Associate Professor Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, who is with the Education Foundations, Research and Human Studies, at the University of Guam. Professor Mafile’o is of Tongan origin and Associate Professor Nabobo-Baba is of Fijian origin.

At that time I was a Research Fellow with the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Islands Studies, in Christchurch, New Zealand. My research preoccupation at that time was on the indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants in Papua New Guinea.

We were all there for the Vaka Vuku: Indigenous Epistemology conference organized at the University of the South Pacific. It was also the moment that Dr. Nabobo-Baba launched her new book, Knowing and Learning: An Indigenous Fijian Approach (2006), based on her PhD study of the Vugalei Fijian epistemology. 

Dr. Nabobo-Baba writes in the prologue of her book: “This book is a gift. It is a gift from my people—a gift of their knowledge—first to me and now from us to the world. It is a gift that is usually silenced in the many contacts the Vugalei have with the outside world. It is a gift from the silence or the unheard.”

A lot happened since that meeting in Fiji. We journeyed across Oceania, following the voice of our mentor and guide the late professor Epeli Hau’ofa. The currents of Oceania have their own internal cultural and environmental logic in placing us where were and where we are now.  Our journeys were taken with the same spirit that brought us together in Fiji making us understand that we were the navigators in our own ocean going canoes.

In a surprise meeting with Dr. Mafile’o in Alotau during an Office of Higher Education meeting on quality assurance we reacquainted ourselves.

Dr. Mafile’o circulated a flyer for a symposium that she was organizing at the Pacific Adventist University in Port Moresby. The symposium was entitled “Research Methods in Pacific Contexts”, hosted by the offices of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Director of Research and Postgraduate Studies at the Pacific Adventist University.

According to Professor Mafile’o the “symposium brings together a selection of speakers to critically discuss research methods for Pacific contexts. Research is increasingly important in Pacific contexts to generate understanding, solutions and change to issues facing Pacific communities. Whether the research concerns relate to natural sciences, business, social sciences, health or theology, consideration is needed of Pacific socio-cultural contexts for effective knowledge generation, transfer and application.”

The symposium was held at the Pacific Adventist University on Wednesday 11th December 2013.

I was happy to be part of the PAU symposium and to re-engage with the discussions on common concerns Pacific Islands scholars such as Dr. Mafile’o, Dr. Nabobo-Baba, and Dr. Morgan Tuimaleali’ifano, a long time friend and colleague who is an Associate Professor in History with the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Law, and Education, USP, Fiji.

A number of colleagues in Papua New Guinea such as Dr. Michael Mel, the Pro Vice Chancellor Academic and Innovation at the University of Goroka (UOG) and Dr. Verena Thomas, the Director of the Centre for Social and Creative Media, University of Goroka also discussed localizing social research approaches through the arts. A handful from the University of Goroka also attended the symposium.

It turned out I had organized a conference on a similar topic: “Reframing Indigenous Knowledge”, at the University of Papua New Guinea some years ago. At that time I was the founding director of the Melanesian and Pacific Studies (MAPS) research centre for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The papers from that conference are now published in a book of the same title with the sub-title: “Cultural Knowledge and Practices in Papua New Guinea” (2009).  The main focus at that time was on how scholars in Papua New Guinea were going about in their business of research, especially in the specific area of indigenous knowledge and methodologies.

In the introduction to the book I wrote: “The western knowledge system altered, shaped, and continued to transform the indigenous societies, their lifestyles, and knowledge systems. The realization that nothing can be done to end this cultural change is reason enough to gather concerned individuals in education, social development, policy divisions, scientists, economists, students, and other scholars to discuss ways in which “reframing” of indigenous knowledge can take place in Papua New Guinea.”

To reframe indigenous knowledge in the first instance argues for a decolonising effort as suggested by Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999): “While it is more typical (with the exception of feminist research) to write about research within the framing of a specific scientific or disciplinary approach, it is surely difficult to discuss research methodology and indigenous peoples together, in the same breath, without having an analysis of imperialism, without understanding the complex ways in which the pursuit of knowledge is deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices” (italics in the original, 1999: 2). Smith’s erudite argument on decolonising research methodologies forces us to address the way we do research in indigenous societies and to be mindful of the Western constructs that have shaped our perspectives of indigenous societies.“

It is clear from the one-day symposium on ‘Research Methods in Pacific Contexts’ that we must publish our works to expand the Pacific research methods spectrum.

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