Engine Room Column: Who is allowed to do research on what?

The principle “nothing about us without us” means that no one can make decisions about minorities or other disadvantaged groups without their direct involvement. Recently, academia has begun to talk about who is allowed to do research and who can talk on behalf of whom. Kalle Korhonen, our Head of Research Funding, discusses the topic in his column Engine Room.
Photo: Michael Rosner-Hyman / Unsplash

Kone Foundation organised a discussion in Finnish on the developments of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The presenters were a journalist and a journalist/social scientist, both of whom are Kone grantees. The moderator was from the Finnish Institute in the Middle East. Before the event, we were twiticized because no one originally from the Middle East or North Africa was presenting.

Now, one could say that in discussions organised in Finland on Brexit, British persons are rarely present, and nobody pays attention to this. But the situations are not, in fact, exactly similar. We are talking about the principle of “nothing about us without us”, which is present whenever one talks about minorities or people in disadvantaged positions in society. It is no longer considered ethical to make decisions on any groups without making the groups themselves participate. But the principle has also been extended to research: who can do research about other peoples or cultures?

In the Kone Foundation language programme, from which more than two hundred projects were funded during the 2010s, the foundation emphasized that the research and documentation of minority languages should empower the communities using those languages. Peter Austin, a renowned linguist who visited the Language Programme Summer School in 2016, gave a fine description of how linguistic fieldwork has changed from the 19th century to our times. The scholars of the early period made short summer field trips, after which they produced a collection of texts, a vocabulary and a grammar for their colleagues. Although the intention was to save endangered languages, the researchers did not take into account that the work could be significant for the people who were actually using the languages.

Currently it is not very acceptable to create a language description project without any outputs directed to the users of that particular language. There may still be projects like that – an academic might not consider the issue when applying for funding. Or a funder might not understand that such a “popularization” effort is even more important than making the research on a major language available to the public. The community aspect of minority language projects will also made visible in the concluding seminar of the Language Programme in January 2020.

In academia one cannot have the requirement that researchers on the language or culture of a certain group of people should have the same ethnic or social origin. That would be destructive. It is however important to involve people from vulnerable groups in academic research, and preferably research on anything, not just on their own ethnic or social group. There is still very much to do in this field.


Kalle Korhonen