Book Review: Decolonizing Data: Unsettling Conversations About Social Research Methods

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Decolonizing Data: Unsettling Conversations About Social Research Methods. By Jacqueline M. Quinless. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022. xx, 173 p. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index. ISBN 9781487523336 (softcover) $24.95; ISBN 9781487530105 (ePUB) $24.95; ISBN 9781487530099 (PDF) $24.95.

Reviewed by Holly James
Law Librarian
Alberta Law Libraries

Decolonizing Data: Unsettling Conversations About Social Research Methods offers a unique scholarly contribution and serves as an “invitation for non-Indigenous researchers to look at the ways in which everyday research practices, particularly within the social sciences, contribute to the colonization of research practices and data” (p. xiii).

Author Dr. Jacqueline Quinless is an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Victoria and instructor of sociology and pre-social work at Camosun College. Recognized by the Canadian Sociological Association and the Angus Reid Foundation, Dr. Quinless is an award-winning public sociologist honoured for her extensive body of community-based work in the advancement of Indigenous welfare in Canada. In Decolonizing Data, Dr. Quinless takes the position that “the decolonization of research within the social sciences requires innovative design practices that include relational allyship, partnership, honouring Indigenous ethical protocols, holding space for resurgence, and challenging power structures” (p. 4).

The book comprises six chapters, the first of which situates urban Indigenous health and wellness within the broader context of contemporary settler relations and ongoing colonial practices. More specifically, Dr. Quinless persuasively supports the position that national quantitative measures for health and well-being such as the Community Well-Being Index are not only deeply limited in their ability to account for Indigenous well-being, but that the scores further “exercise colonial power over Indigenous peoples by legitimizing western ways of well-being over Indigenous ways of ‘being well’” (p. 14). In this chapter, Dr. Quinless introduces the reader to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and the First Nations Perspective on Wellness (FNPOW), both of which are subsequently expanded on and applied as successful illustrations of self-determination and decolonization later in the book.

Chapter 2, “The Impacts of Colonization on Indigenous Health and Well-Being,” makes connections between historical assimilationist and ongoing settler-state policies with contemporary poor health conditions and outcomes for Indigenous peoples across Canada. While there is growing recognition that “Canadian public policy should promote Indigenous well-being as opposed to merely addressing social problems” (p. 17), and despite living in an era of reconciliation,

[m]ore than 113 First Nations are without clean drinking water; forty-eight percent of all children in foster care are First Nations; sixty percent of First Nations children live in poverty. In the last decade, there has been a 90 percent increase in the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous women in Canada; if nothing changes in terms of schooling resources, it will take 28 years to close the education gap between First Nations and Canadians; if nothing changes it will take 63 years to close the income gap between First Nations and Canadians. (p. 30)

The focus of the third chapter gives the reader a deeper understanding of the FNPOW. The chapter illustrates, by way of extensive references, the critical importance of researching urban Indigenous health and wellness from this perspective, thereby acting as a critical bridge across the research gap within Indigenous health literature. Dr. Quinless asks how western researchers work with Indigenous communities to better understand well-being and offers an explanation grounded within the decolonization of research methodologies. Dr. Quinless notes that the objective of a decolonizing approach is not to discard all theory or western knowledge. Rather, “decolonizing methodologies draw from existing knowledge and bridge western and Indigenous knowledge systems” (p. 47).

Chapter 4 reviews the “conceptual frameworks and measurement tools” (p. xvii) of the social capital theory articulated by Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984). This approach emphasizes three forms of capital—economic, cultural, and social—and situates them within the hierarchical, stratified, and differentiated class structure of western societies. Dr. Quinless argues a that Bourdieusian analysis of class relations is “important for policymakers and developmental practitioners to better address issues surrounding Indigenous health and wellness” (p. 49). Through illustrative case studies like the Indigenous Resistance dataset (p. 57) and The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (p. 60), Dr. Quinless successfully roots complex theoretical concepts within applied approaches to Indigenous health and well-being, “provided it is conceptualized by those Indigenous communities, as is the case with the FNPOW” (p. 62).

In the first four chapters, Dr. Quinless offers the expository why. The fifth chapter, “Decolonizing Data and Critical Research Methods,” provides the how by expanding on decolonized methodologies, co-created research design practices, and ethical frameworks rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing. In partnership with the FNHA, Dr. Quinless presents her data and findings obtained through the study of First Nations health outcomes as “a knowledge basis supportive of a decolonized research process that bridges Indigenous world views with dominant knowledge structures” (p. 80).

Chapter 6, the conclusion, offers readers critical reflections on relational allyship, culturally responsive research practices, and the crucial next step of Indigenous data sovereignty. Weaving together themes from the previous chapters, Dr. Quinless states that

[d]ecolonizing research is an ongoing journey through a series of the unseen ways of acting on relationships through language, stories, and ceremony that regenerate Indigenous ways of life. Decolonization is the process of regaining self-determination and social, economic, cultural, and political independence. (p. 118)

This clear and concise text is both a theoretical and practical contribution to the advancement of reconciliation. While rooted in social science and health-based research, Decolonizing Data is a unique and timely body of work that would be a useful addition to both academic and public libraries wanting to deepen their understanding of decolonization and apply a critical and decolonized approach to their spaces, policies, and methodologies.

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