Doing STS research in a postcolonial field

Authors: Clara Stage Langgaard, Nanna Louise Haagen Olesen and Rebecca Mandrup Hoeck

We wrote our thesis in the spring of 2020, while being Junior Researchers in ETHOS Lab. In our thesis we investigated the implementation of Public Digital Mail (PDM) in Greenland. In our research quest we conducted fieldwork in Nuuk in the early spring of 2020. This blogpost has the intention of partly explaining our research endeavour and partly giving concrete advice to other STS researchers on how to do research in a postcolonial field. During our fieldwork we had an ongoing digital diary in the form of the ETHOS Lab instagram. Below, you can see a post, where we are pictured in Nuuk on one of our first days in the -20 degree Celsius weather.

(Selfie in -20 degree Celsius)

Why implement mandatory public digital mail in Greenland?
In Nuuk, we asked the question to our informants: What are the purposes and implications of implementing mandatory public digital mail (PDM) in Greenland? By problematizing the implementation of this first mandatory self-service solution in Greenland, we strived to investigate digitalization in a post-colonial context. We found that no STS research had been conducted on digitalization in Greenland prior to our endeavour, which just added to our already sparked interest in the topic. In this blogpost we briefly sketch out our thesis’ problems and findings, and additionally we will share our methodological experiences in order to start a conversation on how to conduct STS research on state digitalization in a postcolonial landscape.

What are the main purposes and implications? And for whom?
When in Nuuk we spoke to state officials from the Digitalization Agency and Sermersooq municipality, a scholar researching e-learning, an employee of TELE-POST, the internet supplier in Greenland, and employees at Kofoeds Skole, which is an NGO and activity centre for homeless citizens. We aimed at uncovering taken-for-granted “truths” about state digitalization in general, the digital society and digital lifestyles. With its 17,000 citizens, Nuuk is the largest city in Greenland, and we walked the icy streets to meet with our informants, as the pictures below depict.

(Nanna and Clara walking from the Digitalization Agency to the NGO, Kofoeds Skole in Nuuk.)

A leaner and more independent state
In our research we found that the purpose of implementing PDM is the state’s wish for a more efficient and lean state, as this new mail system would entail cost savings and reduction in the duration of case work. Thereby, the citizenry becomes more legible to the state, as the state apparatus can govern its citizens by making them legible (Scott, 1998). Furthermore, as a digitalization project, PDM speaks into a larger narrative of an independent Greenland, that was described as desirable in the official digitalization strategies, created by the Greenlandic government. From a state perspective, digitalization is the lever to a modern and self-supporting Greenland.

Reenactment of postcolonial ties in state digitalization
A large Danish workforce in the Greenlandic state apparatus makes the postcolonial implications complex as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland is shaped by a colonial history, which is still today affecting how the Greenlandic national state is in the world. Denmark has been the model for the modern Greenlandic welfare state and the interrelations between Denmark and Greenland are still tight as Greenland finds a lot of inspiration, expertise and technical solutions in Denmark. However, many Greenlanders seek to be more independent from Denmark in various degrees while the Greenlandic state copy-paste Danish solutions such as PDM. Legislative, social and geographical conditions in the two countries vary significantly and combined with the colonial history these circumstances complicate Greenlandic state digitalization further. Solutions should be anchored locally and built for the specific context they are to be implemented in, because all contexts are unique. It’s the slower but more sustainable alternative, we argue (Ang, 2011).

How to conduct STS research in a post-colonial field
So what did we learn from doing research in a post-colonial field and what advice can we pass on to future researchers striving to investigate state digitalization?

First of all, position yourself! As Donna Haraway (1998) expresses, objectivity and neutrality are ghosts of the past. Thus, the feminist version of objectivity is embodied and positions the researcher and also stresses that biases shape how the researcher experiences the world and therefore how they are able to communicate about it. As Danes researching a Greenlandic context such endeavours became particularly important. Secondly, following the methodology presented by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012), researchers can work to decolonize methodologies and academic thinking in general as these activities are deeply rooted in colonial history. Therefore an active decolonization of academia is needed. The third piece of advice is closely linked to the second and here we stress the importance of accounting for colonial history when working in a postcolonial context. This is crucial in order for researchers to understand and investigate the mechanisms and conditions under which contemporary state digitalization works. Greenlanders are very fond of Facebook and use the platform extensively because it makes sense but when the Greenlandic authorities link this fact to an assurance that PDM can be successfully implemented, it might be taken too far.

It is crucial to understand the context and the users in order to ensure a successful implementation of a solution that is much more than just technical. Conclusively, we point to the importance of looking at state digitalization as more than merely technical as technology always is implemented in a social context. Using Sheila Jasanoff’s conceptual framework of co-production (2004), we propose to look at PDM and the implementation of future self-service solutions as sociotechnical. We see a need for the Greenlandic state to include their end-users to a much higher degree and create solutions fitted for the society in which they will be used.

We then pose the question of how this should be done and point to the notion of teaching digital skills in order to create a successful digital state with digital capable citizens. However, who should take on such responsibilities of enacting the digitally skilled citizen? As our research project came to an end, and we graduated as cand.IT’s, we hope that our work can contribute with starting a conversation on postcolonial state digitalization in order to create better locally anchored and more citizen-inclusive solutions in the digital state.

(Nanna gazing over the snow-covered mountain tops in the Nuuk fjord, wondering what the future holds for Greenlandic state digitalization)

Ang, I. (2011) ‘Navigating complexity: From cultural critique to cultural intelligence’, in Continuum, 25(6), pp. 779-794.

Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575-599.

Scott, J. C. (1998) Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have iled. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenaus Peoples. 2. Zed Books Ltd.