Blog Post

Bringing the territory into the discussion: how to work towards a situated university?

“We advance towards the struggle secure in the reality of our land (with our feet planted on the ground).” Amilcar Cabral

Why do I think it is important to bring territory to the discussion around the role of the university and the debates around its transformation? I consider the effort to build a situated university a crucial one, and I am convinced that everyone in the academy has a role to play from program managers to students and, of course, instructors and researchers.

I guess I should start explaining why I think the university is a territorializing institution. Let’s go back to the definition of territory. It is a space fixed by boundaries and claimed or occupied by an individual or a group of individuals. It is tied to a sense of property or ownership of the land and to processes of inclusion and or exclusion, therefore to mechanisms of power. When we speak about territorializing then, what we really talk about are social practices occurring in the territory, or the different ways individuals, groups or institutions claim this territory. What I want to underline here is that universities are institutions involved in the constant mechanisms of production and reproduction of territory, in other words of inclusion or exclusion within a given space.

If we go back in history, it is important to remember that universities were created to produce knowledge for technical and moral progress. They have been fundamental institutions to promote and legitimate “modern science” over other knowledges. Centering European epistemology, creating binaries such as doxa versus episteme (or beliefs vs “real science”) and dividing the reality in hierarchical disciplines, modern science also locates itself from what S. Castro-Gomez calls the “Zero-Point Hubris”. It is a position from where the scientist (traditionally European, white and male) is withdrawn from the reality he analyses, which is to say he is neutral and using ‘pure reason’. This allowed to divide the world between subjects (the occidental scientists) who can analyze and interpret objects (even other humans are rendered so) to produce legitimate knowledge – modern science. Universities have also been fundamental to the settler-colonial project around the world, reproducing these logics of power and actively participating to the dispossession of Indigenous people and enslavement, through the erasure of other knowledges presented as unscientific, uncivilized and not modern. For instance, the first colonial universities in Latin America were created very early, during the 16th century, and served the power of the Crown and the Church.

Currently, the neoliberal globalization of academic systems reinforces extractivism. It does so through scientific work focused on the depredation of natural resources or data from the Global South (and enclosed through patents), or even through the phenomenon commonly known as brain drain. Another aspect of the neoliberal academy is a structural dependency of Global South academic institutions through the system of citations, funding and ranking of universities. Finally, the division of science in disciplines adds up to these structural conditions and limits the possibilities of doing academic work responding to the needs of the people living within the territories where universities belong. All these elements tend to reinforce a deterritorialization of the academic work.

So what do I mean then when I say that we need to work towards a situated university to unsettle all these power dynamics? How can we make sure our academic institutions are not supporting the status quo, but rather engage in transformation towards social justice? One of the authors I really like when thinking about this contradiction – because it is a contradiction to engage in liberation and situated knowledge production from within a historically capitalist and oppressive institution – is Carlos Matus. Matus suggests situational analysis to create situated knowledge, not as a local essentialization but rather as an alternative to neoliberal deterritorialization. This implies realizing an analysis of the situation, extracting the institution from the supposed neutral position by taking a stand and visibilizing critical problems. In other words, a situated university is one that engages within the power dynamics of its territory. It recognizes itself as a site of struggle between different projects, within a reality of contingency and openness. The university and its community constitute themselves as a force able to push for territorial systems of innovation, incorporating social justice as a core principle. This also means that there isn’t a unique way to work, but a multiplicity of solutions to be implemented through situational analysis.


Figure 1- A few suggestions to engage with the production of situated knowledge from different positions within the university

Why do I think that public universities have a crucial role to play in this transformation and need to be defended? Public universities are sites of struggle – CUNY, where I am currently a student and an adjunct is most definitely a good example. Through internal mechanisms of democracy, students and university community have a say, and there is a certain amount of accountability (at least a little more than in most private universities). Let’s not forget that public universities are funded through public funding, which means that people who might never get access to the academy are part of the effort to pay for it - we have a responsibility towards them too. It is also important to remind ourselves that when we say ‘site of struggle’, it is not only towards the outside, but also from within our own interstices in the institution. There are many scales of action: our individual practice, our classroom, our department, our city, and so on. No institution is a monolith, therefore they are sites of projects in tension, from where we can take a stand and act. Being a situated member of the academic community means to be able to detect those different projects, to understand what is at stake behind each one of them, and to take position through our practice.


Resources to go further:

ALATAS S.F., (2003) Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences Current Sociology, November 2003, Vol. 51(6): 599–613 SAGE PUBLICATION(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

CABRAL, A. (1979), To Start From the Reality of Our Land – to be realists in Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amilcar Cabral. New York: Monthly Review Press, p.44-63.

CASTRO-GOMEZ, S. (2014), Decolonizar La Universidad, La Hybris Del Punto Cero Y El Dialogo De Saberes, in Des/decolonizar la Universidad, Comp PALERMO, Z., Ediciones del Siglo, Buenos Aires, p.69-84.

FANON, F (1952), Peaux Noires, Masques Blancs, Editions du Seuil, Paris.

FREIRE, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

MATUS, C. (1987), Adios, señor Presidente, Editorial Pomaire, Caracas.

MIGNOLO, W., (2014), El Fin de la Universidad como la Conocemos: Foros Mundiales Hacia Futuros Comunales Y Horizontes Descoloniales de Vida, in Des/decolonizar la Universidad, Comp PALERMO, Z., Ediciones del Siglo, Buenos Aires, p.85-102

SOUSA SANTOS, B. De. (2014), Epistemology of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, Boulder: Paradigm Publisher

WALLERSTEIN, I (2001), Unthinking Social Sciences, The limits of 19th Century Paradigms, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.


No comments