Held, 2019

Held, M. B. E. (2019). Decolonizing Research Paradigms in the Context of Settler Colonialism: An Unsettling, Mutual, and Collaborative Effort. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406918821574


All research is guided by a set of philosophical underpinnings. Indigenous methodologies are in line with an Indigenous paradigm, while critical and liberatory methodologies fit with the transformative paradigm. Yet Indigenous and transformative methodologies share an emancipatory and critical stance and thus are increasingly used in tandem by both Western and Indigenous scholars in an attempt to decolonize methodologies, research, and the academy as a whole. However, these multiparadigmatic spaces only superficially support decolonization which, in the Canadian context of settler colonialism, is a radical and unsettling prospect that is about land, resources, and sovereignty. Applying this definition of decolonization to the decolonization of research paradigms, this article suggests that such paradigms must be developed, from scratch, conjointly between Indigenous and Western researchers.


cross-cultural research, decolonizing methodologies, decolonizing paradigm, Indigenous paradigms, knowledge system, methodological bricolage, paradigm proliferation, radical decolonization, way of knowing, worldview

Key Sources

  • Mertens D. M. (2015). Research and evaluation in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Chilisa B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
  • Wilson S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Halifax, Canada: Fernwood.
  • Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. (2006). Including all schedules to the agreement. Retrieved from http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca/settlement.html


  • all R is informed by a paradigm which then informs methodology and methods
  • paradigm also called philosophical stance or conceptual framework

    a set of metaphysical beliefs, assumptions, concepts, and values that informs the researcher’s view of reality, what counts as knowledge and ways of knowing and guides research priorities, choices, and actions

  • can be believed but not proven
  • worldview of a paradigm is defined by assumptions regarding
    • ontology (nature of reality)
    • epistemology (nature of knowledge)
    • axiology (values)
    • methodology (purpose and process of R)
  • these assumptions of a paradigm are internally coherent w/i the paradigm and distinguish each paradigm

  • common paradigms in SSQ R; all from a western, euro-centric tradition
    • postpositivist
    • constructivist (interpretevist)
    • transformative
    • pragmatic
  • academia tends to focus on western paradigms
  • Indigenous methods may be objects of research, but not yet legitimate and coequal approaches to R

    This manifestation of ontological oppression is a result of Western science being exported around the globe from Europe alongside imperialistic and colonial attitudes

  • in late 20th C, Indigenous scholars began to push back by articulating and reclaiming their methodologies and paradigms
  • In Canada, this was pushed by the TRC, mandated by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

    the TRC was a 5-year forward-looking quest to document the truth of Indian residential schools survivors, their families and communities in order to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian residential schools and guide them in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect (Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, 2006, Schedule N).

  • TRC calls on Canada to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
    • UNDRIP took 25 years to negotiate

to enshrine the rights that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world” (Art. 43), including their rights to enjoy and practice their culture and customs, their religions and languages and to develop and strengthen their economies and their social and political institutions (UNDRIP, 2007).

  • when UNDRIP was adopted by UN, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and US voted against it
  • Canada finally signed in 2016

To decolonize research paradigms and methodologies is to include Indigenous ways of knowing in academia, that is, to teach them, to use them in research, to value them as equal to Western approaches to knowing and to creating knowledge.

  • many Rs experiment with combining Indigenous and Western methodologies
  • few hint at issues of blending two methodologies from different paradigms
    • likely because discussions are relatively new

Chilisa B., Tsheko G. N. (2014). Mixed methods in indigenous research: Building relationships for sustainable intervention outcomes. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 8, 222–233. doi:10.1177/1558689814527878

  • Two streams of thinking
    • it is worth bringing transformative and Indigenous paradigms into conversation as they share some assumptions
    • Indigenous paradigms are so distinct from Western approaches that they cannot be considered a sub-paradigm in the current typology and need their own category
  • Indigenous scholars strain at having to force their approaches into western categories
  • Indigenous pathways fo research are not readily available to non-Indigenous R

This article discusses the need for a third route where a new multiparadigmatic space is coproduced by Western and Indigenous scholars with the aspiration of true and full decolonization, understood as a mutual endeavor with an unpredictable outcome.


  • doing research at the intersection of western and Indigenous ways of knowing can become an expression of colonialism
  • pitfalls
    • focusing on the differences between western and Indigenous WoK
    • evading epistemic racism
    • using Indigenous knowledge solely to corroborate and complement western knowledge

Philosophical Orientations of Social Inquiry

Western Research Paradigms
  • Positivism (empiricism)
    • borrowed from natural sciences
  • postpositivism
    • evolved from positivism
  • constructivist
    • emerged to describe and understand human experience
  • transformative
    • unites different frameworks to engage with issues of power and justice
  • pragmatic
    • mixes qualitative and quantitative
Table 1. Philosophical assumptions of the major paradigms that may inform social inquiry
Positivist (Empiricist) Postpositivist (Critical Realist) Constructivist (Interpretivist) Transformative (frm. Critical Theory) Pragmatic Indigenous
Ontology Realist; one knowable reality Critical Realist; one reality, probabilistically knowable Relativist; multiple, socially constructed realities Historical/social realism; multiple, socially and historically shaped realities Realist; unique individual interpretations of one reality Relativist, relational; multiple, socially constructed realities, mutual reality based on multitude of relationships
Epistemology Objectivist, empirical; research findings are true Objectivist, empirical; research findings are probably true Subjectivist, experiential; findings are created; idiographic, contextual Intersubjective, experiential; value-mediated findings, knowledge is socially and historically situated; dialectical understanding Dependent on particular study Intersubjective; experiential, knowledge is relational
Axiology Values excluded; influence denied Values excluded; influence denied Values included; formative Values included; formative research a means for social emancipation; solidarity with the oppressed Dependent on context/particular study Values included; formative research guided by relational accountability that promotes respectful representation and reciprocity
Methodology Experimental/manipulative; correlational; quantitative verification of hypotheses; decontextualized Modified experimental/manipulative; falsification of hypotheses, decontextualized Hermeneutical/dialectical; qualitative, contextualized Dialogic/dialectical; qualitative or mixed methods; informed by theories (feminist theories, postcolonial discourse), political; contextual, participatory Approaches matched to questions and purposes of research; predominantly mixed methods Participatory, lliberatory, transformative; positioned in Indigenous knowledge systems

The positivist and postpositivist paradigms with their realist ontology and an axiology that positions research as value free are ill-suited for research at the interface of Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.

While the transformative paradigm is still a Western approach, it is value driven due to its interest in power relations and thus has the potential to be more inclusive of other, including non-Western, epistemologies, and ontologies (Cram & Mertens, 2015, 2016).

  • Cram F., Mertens D. M. (2015). Transformative and Indigenous frameworks for mixed- and multi-method research. In Hesse-Biber S., Johnson R. B. (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of multimethod and mixed methods research inquiry (pp. 91–109). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Cram F., Mertens D. M. (2016). Negotiating solidarity between indigenous and transformative paradigms in evaluation. Evaluation Matters—He Take Tō Te Aromatatwai, 2, 161–189. doi:10.18296/em.0015
  • pragmatic paradigm may be employed in MM research to merge conflicting qual and quan methods
  • focus on common sense and less metaphysical
    • intersubjectivity of the social life
    • allows researcher to study whatever is of interest
    • limited to gain knowledge to pursue desired ends
    • freedom to choose and combine methods as appropriate to the question
Indigenous frameworks
  • Indigenous peoples distrust 'research' and have become among the most researched people groups
    • natural scientists examined Indigenous territory in order to exploit resources for profit
    • white settler social scientists studied Indigenous peoples in order to solve 'Indigenous problems' and inform policy
    • research was carried out by non-Indigenous people using a colonial worldview
    • R was exploitative and Indigenous communities were not beneficiaries, or even equal participants
    • not only aimed at assimilating Indigenous ppl, but also invasive and unethical (skin grafting experiments on Inuit ppl w/o consent)
  • early Indigenous paradigms developed by Māori in NZ and also Indigenist paradigm in Australia.
  • North American Indigenous groups followed as well as African, Latin American, and Pacific Islanders

By developing and expressing Indigenous research paradigms and methodologies, Indigenous scholars from around the world are reclaiming research, and with it knowledge, language, and culture, for their peoples. Regaining control over research by reframing it under their worldviews is an act of resistance to racist and colonial oppression (Martin, 2002, as cited in Rigney, 1999; Steinhauer, 2002).

  • Common reason for using Indigenous approaches is to decolonize western approaches
  • commonality among Indigenous approaches
    • ontologies, epistemologies, axiologies, and methodologies are all rooted in the land, and in the local.
    • methodologies and epistemologies are forms of critical pedagogy in that “they embody a critical politics of representation that is embedded in the rituals of indigenous communities” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008a, p. 3)
    • surprisingly similar across the world in terms of understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence
    • long-term perspectives
    • adaptaion to change
    • commitment to the commons
  • some have proposed pan-indigenous paradigms, others say such are too general to be useful
  • metaphysical assumptions of Indigenous research paradigms
    • a relativist (there are multiple, socially and historically shaped realities) and relational ontology (mutual reality based on multitude of relationships)
    • an intersubjective and relational epistemology in which knowledge is relational, that is, based on a multitude of relationships (in Indigenous philosophy, there is no clear distinction between ontology and epistemology due to their relationality)
    • an axiology that promotes respectful representation and reciprocity through relational accountability; and
    • a participatory, liberatory methodology that is relational and transformative (Chilisa, 2012; Wilson, 2008)
  • relationality is central, as is knowledge as a collective, including the spiritual world and entire cosmos
  • while this expression of a research paradigm is itself a western approach, it has been adopted by Indigenous researchers

Decolonizing Methodologies, Decolonizing Paradigms

  • over 3 decades, western paradigms have changed and become more inclusive, diverse and political

    It has been—and still is—an era of emancipation; “…emancipation from hearing only the voices of Western Europe, emancipation from generations of silence, and emancipation from seeing the world in one color” (Lincoln et al., 2011, p. 125). This process resulted in the transformative and Indigenous paradigms sharing several philosophical assumptions such as an ontology based on multiple socially constructed realities, an intersubjective and experiential epistemology, and an emancipatory axiology as both paradigms take a critical and liberatory stance (see Table 1). Nevertheless, there are still major differences, if not irreconcilabilities, between Western and Indigenous approaches to research. One of the most striking differences is the absence of relationality in all of the major Western paradigms compared to Indigenous paradigms that are universally characterized by axioms that are all relational (Chilisa, 2012; Louis, 2007; Wilson, 2008). While both a Western and an Indigenous methodology may be transformative and participatory, the two are nevertheless based on very different paradigms.

According to Chilisa (2012), such an approach is resistance to Western research and “a process of centering the concerns and worldviews of the colonized Other so that they understand themselves through their own assumptions and perspectives” (p. 13). In other words, decolonizing Western methodologies means locating power within the Indigenous community (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008a).

  • non-Indigenous scholars can incorporate Indigenous methodologies, epistemologies, or axxiologoies into western R approaches
  • strategies of partnership and collaboration with the Indigenous community help ensure the research is culturally appropriate

But can an Indigenous methodology be used under a Western research paradigm? Can a Western methodology be employed under an Indigenous paradigm? Not when methodology is understood as Guba and Lincoln (2005) view it, namely as a crucial part of a research paradigm that is informed by it and in return determines it, being linked in a reciprocal interdependence. An Indigenous methodology is informed by an Indigenous paradigm which is fundamentally different from the transformative paradigm, even though they share commonalities such as an intersubjectivist and experiential position regarding their epistemology and emancipatory/liberatory aspirations (Chilisa, 2012; Mertens, 2015; Wilson, 2008). Paradigms are overarching philosophical systems that represent belief systems or world views; thus, according to Denzin and Lincoln (2008b), one’s research can only be guided by one paradigm, and one cannot move between them ad libitum (p. xx). I might seem to share this view that focuses on the incommensurability of different research paradigms. In my brief overview, I have treated them as metaphysical stances that inform the entire research process. Listing their philosophical assumptions regarding ontology, epistemology, axiology, and methodology in a table where individual boxes are separated by solid lines (see Table 1) further highlights the paradigms’ incommensurability (Morgan, 2007). But who gets to define the boxes, that is, the assumptions and the paradigms themselves? Why do Guba and Lincoln (1994, 2005) end up listing five paradigms, while Mertens (2015) also lists five, yet a different set? Why did I choose to include in my list the pragmatic paradigm which is not typically included in listing research paradigms (cf. Chilisa, 2012; Guba & Lincoln, 2005; Wilson, 2008)?

  • however, for many years MM research combined approaches based in incompatible paradigms

    Can the pragmatic paradigm thus provide a framework under which transformative and Indigenous methodologies can be used in combination? Not directly. The pragmatic paradigm was constructed to provide the flexibility to make quantitative/qualitative mixed-methods research legitimate from a philosophical/theoretical point of view.

  • MM approaches generally lack a true axiological stance

In the Canadian context of settler colonialism, decolonization is about land, resources, sovereignty, and self-determination (Tuck & Yang, 2012); as such, it involves the creation of a new social order. Thus, it is a mutual undertaking involving the colonizer and the colonized (Beeman-Cadwallader, Quigley, & Yazzie-Mintz, 2011). I suggest applying this radical interpretation of decolonization to the decolonization of research in order to advance the discussion on multiparadigmatic research spaces. Radically decolonizing research means than any decolonizing research paradigm must be developed conjointly between Western and Indigenous researchers, creating a new research framework altogether. It also means that decolonizing paradigms is not a means to an end (e.g., to provide alternative pathways to research or to make the research endeavor more inclusive and diverse), but just a small piece in the puzzle that is the decolonization project, which is ultimately a radical social reform. Decolonizing research under these premises will be an unsettling collaboration with fraught solidarity (Tuck & Yang, 2012) and an unknown outcome.

In terms of decolonizing methodologies, Indigenous scholars made the first step by reviving, articulating, and using Indigenous methodologies and research paradigms for their research (e.g., Bishop, 2005; Graveline, 2000; Hart, 2010; Kovach, 2009; Rigney, 1999; Wilson, 2008). Based on local and relational worldviews, these paradigms, however, are only accessible to the respective Indigenous communities. Non-Indigenous scholars who support the self-determination of Indigenous peoples—also referred to as allied others—then tried to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge production into their research but still worked from a Western paradigm (e.g., Jackson-Barrett et al., 2015; Mertens, 2012). Many scholars engaged in research that tries to bridge Western and Indigenous approaches have expressed frustration over the fact that the ethical space of such research is ill-defined. Particularly, graduate student researchers (both Indigenous students and allies) who wish to embark on decolonizing research have to stem a lack of guidance and understanding, be it from advisory committees, ethics boards, university legal services, or granting agencies which are still often biased toward Western research approaches (cf. Kovach, 2009; Kuokkanen, 2007; Simonds & Christopher, 2013; Snow, 2018; Styres, Zinga, Bennett, & Bomberry, 2010).

Another transdisciplinary pathway is two-eyed seeing, coined by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall and first developed as a colearning journey that weaves together Indigenous and Western knowledges in science education (Bartlett, Marshall, & Marshall, 2012).2 These Indigenous paradigms can be used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers alike, for, as Chilisa et al. (2017) posit, paradigmatic positions need not be treated in exclusivist terms, that is, that the use of one precludes thinking in terms of the other. Recognizing the need for diversity among the current “big four” (Dillard, 2006) Western research paradigms (postpositivist, constructivist, transformative, and pragmatic), Indigenous and Western scholars have called for the inclusion of a fifth paradigm, one based on non-Western perspectives, be they African, Eastern, African American, or Cree (e.g., Buntu, 2013; Chilisa, 2012; Chilisa et al., 2017; Dillard, 2006; Romm, 2015; Russon, 2008; Wilson, 2008).

Ultimately, abolishing Western epistemological dominance is a global challenge of “decolonising the mind” (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 1986). A first and important step on the way to empowering and emancipating Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the dominant society; to true (research) collaboration; to a better understanding of each other; each other’s approaches, concepts, and worldviews is to move beyond settler myths such as the helping Western Other (Barker, 2010, p. 320; Denzin & Lincoln, 2008a, p. 5). Or as Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian artist, activist, and academic, put it: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together”