History Workshop: What does it mean to decolonise History teaching and research at SOAS?
11 February 2019
By Eleanor Newbigin
“SOAS is unique in the regional focus of its History teaching. It is the only History department in Britain and north America that does not teach courses on western history Rather, our BA and MA History programmes focus exclusively on the histories of regions and people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In their 2013 study of the western-centric focus of UK and north-American History departments, Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt’s singled out SOAS History as the only department in their sample ‘whose faculty complement most closely matches global population patterns.’
“Recent discussions about decolonising teaching curricula, however, have drawn attention to the deeper ways in which colonial practices and their legacies structure learning spaces. A 2015 SOAS Student Union report highlighted how some teaching at SOAS were framed in terms of teaching ‘outsiders’ about Asia and Africa, that reinforced structural racism and the ‘otherness’ of the non-western world.
“This insider/outsider relationship, as well as the specific regional focus of SOAS’s History teaching and research, reflect the institution’s own imperial history. Founded initially as the School of Oriental Studies in 1916 (Africa was only added in 1935), SOAS was established for the specific purpose of training colonial officials for their postings across the British Empire.”
Eleanor Newbigin is a senior lecturer in the history of modern South Asia at SOAS, University of London. She is interested in the histories of political representation and citizenship in India, especially during the subcontinent’s independence and more recently in the historical relationship between Empire and university education in Britain and India. She tweets at @EleanorNewbigin.