What Can Edward Said’s Orientalism Teach us About Community-Based Research?

Summary of Orientalism 

Orientalism is a book published in 1978 by author Edward Said, a Columbia University professor of literature and decolonial thinker. In the book, Said critiques “orientalism,” which he defines as the academic study of the Eastern world (or the “Orient,” as Said phrases it) by the west. Said writes that, historically, a number of issues have arisen from the way in which the western world studies the Eastern world. Said is in a unique position to notice this, as a native Palestinian who lived and worked as a Western academic. The issues Said notes are the following:

  • Firstly, Said argues that western scholars have historically spoken on behalf of Eastern cultures, feeling as though their scholarship in the region qualifies them to do so. This has resulted in consistently inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of the Orient, as members of various Eastern cultures are deprived of the ability to authentically represent themselves and their cultures.
  • Secondly, he argues that when western scholars discuss the Orient, they often do so in a way that maintains a hierarchy between the west and the East, in which the West portrays itself as more nuanced and advanced than the Orient.
  • Thirdly, Said writes that orientalism results in an “othering” of the Orient. Through Orientalism, the East is portrayed as a cultural and political “other” to the west, putting forth the view that the Orient and the west are contradictory cultures that have irreconcilable differences between them. This creates an “us versus them” dichotomy between the west and the East. 

Relevance to Community Engaged Research 

Said specifically discusses the West and the East, but the dynamics that exist are relevant to community-based research such as the Noise Project in a broader sense. As a result of centuries of colonialism, there is a narrative that the west is in some way intellectually and culturally more “civilized” and “advanced” than the East. This is a narrative that western scholars further through the practice of orientalism, both intentionally and as a result of unconscious biases and language. This same dynamic exists when “prestigious” dominant-culture institutions such as Cornell collaborate with researchers from smaller community organizations. These dominant-culture institutions are perceived by their members, as well as the broader research community, as being in some way more elite or scientific than their community collaborators. This often results in research being produced that in some way reaffirms these hierarchical narratives, either through the content of the research or through the inequitable ownership of the research.

Additionally, Said discusses the way in which orientalism causes the Orient to be stripped of its ability to authentically represent itself, which results in inaccuracies. Western scholars traveled to the Eastern world, and returned back home to produce scholarship and narratives that did not directly involve Easten perspectives. This is similar  to the way in which contemporary researchers travel to certain communities in order to study a particular cause, but then deny the members of the community with whom they collaborate an opportunity to be fully involved and compensated in their work by rejecting a co-created approach.

 In the Noise Project, we’ve given thought to these issues. Project working agreements such as “let people speak for themselves” and “be inclusive” seek to ensure that research is co-created, rather than produced inequitably by the institution, and mandates that community partners have an opportunity to represent themselves and their communities. 

The project’s “emphasis on bottom-up organizing” and agreement to “use ICBO research to guide us in all aspects of the project” challenges the notion that traditional methods of research are superior to non-dominant or radical alternatives, and in doing so pushes back on the assumption that the methodology of large-scale institutions is of fundamentally more value than other methods–an assumption that is inherently colonialist. Instead, the project seeks to be co-created equitably by the lab and community partners, putting forth the view that all collaborators, both institutional and community, are of importance and merit and that there is not “One right way” to conduct research.

 1 Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones’ Dismantling Racism Workbook describes fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture. Only One Right Way, which I reference here, is “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.”