Researching Harmful Cultural Practices: Intersectionality As a Tool for Rethinking Power and Privilege in Research

Monday, 16 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Sophie WITHAECKX, Free University Brussels, Belgium
The concept of ‘harmful cultural practices’ has become a common, yet contested term in academic scholarship (Longman & Bradley, 2015; Mohanty, 1988). Developed mainly within Western institutions to particularly call out non-Western practices as sexist and violent, it has been criticised for its inherent biases and the ways it might be abused to justify neo-colonial interventions and oppression in non-Western settings. When uncritically reproduced in research, scholars may thus partake in the reproduction of problematic representations of non-Western men and women as respectively inherently violent or as passive victims of ‘culture’. These issues are complicated by the differing views of morality involved and the difficulties that arise when exposing practices considered as ‘normal’ and inherently ‘good’ by some, but described as ‘harmful’, oppressive and ‘bad’ by others. Researchers working from positions of privilege, may therefore become caught up in a complex of challenging moral and epistemological questions. Because: Who exactly is exposing these practices as ‘harmful’? Whose voices are heard in research and which perspectives become silenced? How does a concept like HCP – with its emphasis on ‘culture’ – obscure the impact of racial, economic and neo-colonial exploitation in the persistence of these practices?

In this contribution, I focus on scholarship on honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, to describe how concerns with power and privilege have been addressed in research. This may involve for example adopting comparative perspectives or incorporating adjusted notions of autonomy and agency. Further, I explore how intersectionality theory may be useful for researchers studying harmful cultural practices. By centralising a commitment towards social justice and a dynamic view on the nature of oppression, intersectionality may provide useful tools for rethinking research strategies and concepts, and for critically assessing one’s position when studying contentious issues like ‘harmful cultural practices’.