Philippa Grand, publisher for International Development at Bristol University Press, interviews Professor Baltica Cabieses, Universidad del Desarollo Chile and University of York, UK, about her experiences as a researcher in both Global North and South contexts, how we can start to address inequalities in knowledge production and why it is important.
Why is addressing equity in knowledge production across the North and South important? Why has this debate become so important now? What is it about our current era that makes this such a live topic of discussion?
The world is challenged by structural, historical, pervasive inequalities. Differences between and within social groups and nations have become one of the most relevant aspects of modern human life. Such differences are somewhat a part of the expected social context in which our lives take place. We need to actively think about them to truly see them, as we have become used to living like this as our ‘normality’.
There are many ways in which inequalities shape our living experiences, including what we call the North and the South and their substantial differences in prosperity, democracy, peace, life expectancy, wealth and human development. The North and the South are different in how knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is conceived, produced and transferred to enrich people´s lives. The North is powerful in its way of establishing what scientific knowledge is and which type of knowledge is highly valued, especially following positivism and mechanic understandings of cause-and-effect processes in life, social dynamics and population health. This has been extraordinary; it has saved, improved and lengthened our lives.
One interesting discussion, though, is how other ways of producing knowledge can be valued accordingly today, as we are more aware of human social and cultural diversity, complex and systemic connections involved in every aspect of our everyday lives. This includes global distant connections that we can see now more than ever before and which affect us all (COVID-19 being an exemplary example) and, of course, the links between the North and the South. That is, understanding cause–effect processes is a milestone, yet is does not always explain how things are perceived, experienced and signified by thousands of social groups and billions of people that compose humankind.
And the South has so much to say, so many stories to tell about how knowledge from the North is received, shaped and used; but also about equally relevant types of knowledge that come from the South and could be novel and equally extraordinary to the North. Knowledge from ancestral aboriginal communities that have survived colonialism; knowledge about dealing with hundreds of languages and dialects in small geographical areas; knowledge about human creativity to survive poverty in its many forms; knowledge about who are the people from the South, their history, their oppression and their dignity. The same with natural resources and all kinds of life in its greatest biodiversity.
How has your own experience of academia working in both North and South settings shaped you as a scholar? As a scholar based in Latin America, how have you come up against epistemic inequities in your career and in your work?
I am a Chilean social epidemiologist trained both in the South (Chile) and the North (UK). I think the experience of learning from and working in both hemispheres has allowed me to have a wider understanding of things. In a way, I am able to locate different academic, research and professional currents around my topics of interest in simultaneous, equally relevant folders in my mind. Based on need, such folders can either work on their own or collaborate. It is like having the possibility to understand, respect and articulate different ways of thinking, of expressing and of doing things related to research. I have learned from the greatest of the North who have empowered and illuminated many aspects of my mind, yet it is my heart in the South that makes it all work and relevant to me. From this wider inner place, I can think of the world as one and at the same time have insights of aspects of phenomena that happen in specific places in our planet. That gives me the chance to adapt, tailor and learn from experience, as well as connecting with others when I conduct my research. I can see how different we can think and live, yet how similar we are as humankind.
Going back to academic work and inequalities between the North and the South, I would like to see the way research is conceived, executed and transferred by the South and for the South. That is, give a unique and equally important place to knowledge creation in the South. Perhaps by walking that line, we can see how similar we are, how close we are to each other, and how both the North and the South have strengths and limitations. One way of pushing this forward would be, for example, reinforcing every support given to researchers in the South to share and disseminate their knowledge all over the world. Also, advocating giving social value to knowledge production from the South, so that we come closer together as a whole.
What is the biggest challenge in addressing inequities in knowledge production between the Global North and Global South? What is the role of colonialism in forming these inequities?
Social inequalities and inequities are intimately related to our history. Most territories from the South have experienced, at least for a period of time, some form of colonialism based on interests from the North. Such colonial processes continue to shape the history of a number of countries, islands and localities in the South even today. We can see that this has been important to the South’s social, cultural, economic and political endeavours for the past ten centuries. It has also shaped societies’ syncretism, as many of us who live in the South are a combination of ethnic identities, formed over generations through interchanges between locals and Europeans in the past. The exchanges between the North and South are multiple, complex and dynamic, just like human mobility flows are today. The idea that ‘what comes from the North is better’ is to some degree embedded in our Southern culture, at different levels in different regions and countries. Even in Chile, we see some people thinking of whiter people as more beautiful, smarter, more elegant, more powerful, and of darker-skinned people as ‘less’ of all such attributes. A vast amount of scientific knowledge in these countries clearly depicts processes of stigma, discrimination, racism and xenophobia related to this heritage of colonialism and that remains alive today.
We need to work on who we are and what defines us, embrace our history and value the knowledge produced in the South as highly as that from the North. We need to look after our phenomenological understandings and experiences, our rich and diverse culture, our natural resources and our way of addressing research in our own way. We can learn from the North’s history and scientific development, yet we need to share our own knowledge, in our own way. This will not only be fair and true but might do some good to counter the inequalities and complex history we share with the North. Celebrating our own voice and our shared history.
Baltica Cabieses is Professor of Social Epidemiology, Universidad del Desarrollo Chile and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Health at the University of York. Baltica is co-leader of Lancet Migration for Latin America, coordinator of the Chilean Network for Research and Migration in Health RECHISAM and member of several academic global networks. She has several published books and reports, has participated in over 45 research projects in Chile and abroad, and has more than 140 scientific publications.
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