Learn From Africa: How to do Indigenous Research


I’ve argued extensively over the course of my work on Africa, that management in Africa is cross-cultural management. This is true for the context as well as the content and methods of management research in Africa. I have equally argued that you can’t do cross-cultural management research by completely ignoring what can be learned from Africa and the rest of the Majority World.

I believe it’s quite difficult to get this message across in the incestuous world of scholarly management publication. And despite what scholars sometimes like to believe about doing dispassionate science, as Porsanger (2004: 108) suggests, ‘any research is indissolubly related to power and control’. Smith (1999) had previously suggested that indigenous research is ‘…a highly political activity…and can be seen as a threatening activity’(Smith, 1999: 104), with Marsden (1991: 37) telling us that ‘knowledge is a key asset in securing control and thus any discussion about it must necessarily recognize the political dimensions of its use’.

This is reflected in the way we might conceptualise indigenous research with a difference between

  1. Research about indigenous peoples and knowledge; and
  2. Indigenous research for and by indigenous peoples.

The politics of indigenous research

Research about indigenous peoples and knowledge is ‘inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’ (Smith, 1999:1), where, for indigenous people the ‘..collective memory of imperialism has been perpetuated through the ways in which knowledge about indigenous peoples was collected, classified and then represented in various ways back to the West, and then, through the eyes of the West, back to those who have been colonized.’ (pp. 1-2).

Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders

This is an issue that appears pertinent in Africa, and should be understood by management researchers.

Smith (1999: 173) appears then to be marrying up indigenous research for and by indigenous peoples, and research about indigenous peoples and knowledge when she talks about doing research in ‘..the cross-cultural context’, outlining the types of questions that need to be answered such as:

  • Who defines the research problem?
  • For whom is this study worthy and relevant?
  • Who says so?
  • What knowledge will the community gain from this study?
  • What knowledge will the researcher gain from this study?
  • To whom is the researcher accountable?

These are questions that should be carried over into international management research.

So, there appears to be a distinction between a research agenda that reflects control (done by outside researchers on indigenous people for purposes that reflect the need to understand and ultimately to inform international managers for their own purposes including control) and an agenda that reflects resistance (done by indigenous people, for their own purposes, which may ultimately affect the type of policy and business environment within which they operate, and may provide challenges to accepted ways of managing local people and resources by, for example, MNEs), with Smith (1999) suggesting that these two agendas may be brought together in cross-cultural research.

These different agendas will ultimately reflect the way research is undertaken, and the way indigenous knowledge is represented in the outcomes of research, and integrated into international management scholarship.

This then raises two interrelated issues in developing a research agenda and in devising appropriate methods to research indigenous people, knowledge and practice.

  1. How is it possible to marry up the two apparently opposing research agendas of control and resistance? and
  2. Given the geopolitical force of the dominant representation of the indigenous (e.g. outmoded, exotic, frozen in time), how is it possible to give voice to the weaker representation of indigenous people by indigenous people themselves in research?
Click on image to go to full table

Researchers’ reflexivity

Addressing both these issues involves the researchers’ reflexivity (Özkazanç-Pan, 2008) in understanding the historical and geopolitical context of their work (for the management researcher in Africa, understanding the historical context of colonialism and the modern context of globalization). But, this also involves indigenous people’s capabilities in resisting representations of themselves by the more powerful, including researchers.

This first issue is addressed in the Table by reflexive praxis involving telling stories about one’s self (the researcher) and among selves (researchers) and multi-layered reflexivity involving identifying hidden assumptions the researchers may hold.

Co-creating the research agenda

In both cases there is an assumption that the research process is a sharing one, and that indigenous researchers will have an equal role to play. Yet it also involves overcoming the weak nature of the agency of indigenous people in contributing to such representations, including the nature and product of research. Hence participatory action research is suggested (Table), where for example in conversational interviews researcher and participant co-create the product of the interview and participants exercise a high degree of control over what the research is actually creating.

Research that does not directly involve the active participation of indigenous actors (including formulation of the research project) is flawed.

I’ve found in my own research that a problem for Western researchers, such as myself, doing research with partners in Africa is the deference often shown to the ‘superior knowledge’ of the Western researcher, even by professional and academic colleagues (Jackson, 2004). It’s up to the researcher to develop, in partnership, participatory methods that clearly identify the power dynamics within the research process and attempt to control for these.

Understanding the geopolitical (local-global) network

Knowledge isn’t impartial. It comes from somewhere (I think a careful reading of Flyvbjerg, 2001, on this within the social sciences is important).

This needs to be understood, discussed, assimilated and incorporated into the process. The interests of each party to the research should be interrogated in terms of how this affects the nature of the research and its outcomes, and how conflicts of interests are to be dealt with in the research process.

In the Table, I am therefore proposing social network research as a way of analysing where management and organizations being studied are situated as an interface of numerous influences, mapping their many connections with different institutions, leaders and policy bodies; examining the power relations with each.

I have previously outlined the connection between indigenous knowledge and practices and the informal economy. Attitudes expressed by those that have a policy role regarding the informal sector, such as the perceptions of Adams of the World Bank’s (2008) of traditional apprenticeships reinforcing outmoded technologies, are significant and may have a profound effect on the local business environment. Such connections of policy bodies and others can be mapped out by researchers, with policy and perceptions emanating from different parties being critically reappraised as a prelude to devising research questions, identifying subjects/participants in research, and finding sources of data. These different identified influences (individuals or corporate bodies) can also be brought into the research as stakeholders.

How the indigenous (as ‘the other’) is represented

If the above addresses the issue of what shapes the subject of our study and what the different influences on indigenous knowledge are, for example of the informal sector, the major concern that many of the methods suggested in the Table is how to counter the representations of the ‘third world’ made by researchers and media in the ‘first world’. This is significant given the huge resources of the international development industry, for example, in projecting Africa as backward and in need of Western help and knowledge, and the resources in the formal commercial sectors, which in areas such as mining and oil exploration have largely over-ridden the interests and views of local communities (e.g. Hendry, 2000, on the much-discussed case of Shell in Nigeria).

Hence methods, such as a critical re-reading of dominant (Western) accounts of the informal sector, which draw on Postcolonial Theory, and interestingly ‘whiteness studies’ in the United States which examine the apparent invisibility of American culture (Jackson, 2011) should be a prerequisite to empirical research (Table) . Yet the problem of representation involves both the researcher and the researched.

How the indigenous represent themselves

Methods of representation, in circumstances of possible limited literacy, and lack of access to an international audience from within the informal sector should be considered. Hence Smith (1999) suggests such decolonizing methodologies as telling stories, visual imaging and film making by indigenous people. Visual ethnography methods could be used, such as the pioneering work of Moletsane et al (2009) which explores female community representations by providing cameras to local women participants, enabling them to represent themselves and their communities through visual imagery (See Sarah Pink). These methods represent an attempt to challenge accepted images of, for example, poverty in Africa, and the backwardness of Africa’s informal economy.

Where we go from here?

Yet Smith (1999) goes further in proposing methods such as envisioning to suggest possibly trajectories in terms of what directions and goals research could help with.

How do we get there?

Reframing suggests how change may be made by redefining directions and means as previously defined by government bodies or business leaders in the formal economy and reinterpreting them. This would presuppose, as above, extending participation in the research process, as well as goal-setting through negotiation in a spirit of mutual respects (Table).

The research methods outlined in the Table are not intended to be exhaustive, nor to provide a detailed description within the confines of limited space. Nor do they purport to exclude more established methods such as questionnaire surveys. For example the Delphi approach for seeking expert input using an iterative feedback technique in building questionnaire items described by Noorderhaven and Tidjani (2001) in their cross-cultural management research in Africa may be useful in integrating indigenous knowledge(s) and interests into management surveys.

Yet those outlined in the Table are with the direct purpose in mind of giving greater representation to indigenous voices and are drawn from the wider social science literature on indigeneity, and as yet are under-used in international and cross-cultural management research. They specifically address the need to marry up the two apparently opposing research agendas of control and resistance and to give voice to the weaker representation of the indigenous by the indigenous in management research as discussed above.

The use to which the research is going to be put is of course an important issue, and establishing the means and methods of articulation and reporting of research may also be fundamental. The way research is reported, and what is reported is part of this geopolitical dynamic that should be understood, and dealt with within the research partnership. Academic reporting in Western scientific journals serves only one set of (very narrow) interests. How should the results of research be reported to and by indigenous actors, for example in the informal economy, and to what use should be serious questions.

The agency of local participants should be an ultimate consideration in terms of what can now be done with the product of the research, how it can influence policy and leadership among those organizations and businesses that come into contact with the informal sector, and how it can extend and strengthen the power of participants in the informal economy within the sphere of influence.

It’s time cross-cultural management scholars got series about indigenous research. After all, we are talking not about a small antiquated minority of the world’s population. We are talking about the Majority World. It is also time the small, but increasing, number of management scholars focusing on Africa and other Majority World areas realised that managing in Africa is about managing cross-culturally in terms of context, content and practice. And their research methods should match this.

Further reading and references

As a basis for indigenous research please read:

9781856496247Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books






But also start from a critical reading of social science and social scientific research:


resourceConnell, R. (2007) Southern Theory, Polity: Cambridge, UK





9780521775687Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Cited in text

Adams A. V./World Bank (2008) Skills Development in the Informal Sector of Sub‐Saharan Africa, World Bank, accessed at http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/ 251006 day3SkillsfortheInformalApril1Se2.pdf, on 09/08/10.

Hendry, J. (2000) Shell in Nigeria (University of Cambridge), Cranfield: European Case Clearing House, No. 300-070-1.

Jackson, T. (2004). Management and Change in Africa: A Cross-cultural Perspective. London: Routledge.

Jackson, T. (2011) International Management Ethics: A Critical Cross-cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marsden, D. (1991). Indigenous Management. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 2(1), 21-38.

Moletsane, R., Mitchell, C., De Lange, N., Stuart, J., Buthelezi, T. & Taylor, M. (2009) What can a woman do with a camera?: turning the female gaze on poverty and HIV and AIDS in rural South Africa. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 22(3): 315-331.

Noorderhaven, N. G. and Tidjani, B. (2001) Culture, governance, and economic performance: an explorative study with a special focus on Africa, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 1(1): 31-52.

Özkazanç-Pan, B. (2008) International Management research meets “The rest of the world”, Academy of Management Review, 33(4), 964-974.

Porsanger, J. (2004) An Essay about Indigenous Methodology, accessed at http://munin.uit.no/munin/bitstream/handle/10037/906/article.pdf?sequence=1, 1/07/11.

Cited in Table

Bartlett, J. G., Iwasaki, Y., Gottlieb, B., Hall, D., & Mannell, R. (2007). Framework for Aboriginal-guided decolonizing research involving Métis and First Nations persons with diabetes. Social Science and Medicine, 65, 2371-2382.

Blodgett, A. T, Schinke, R. J., Smith, B., Peltier, D. & Pheasant, C. (2011) In Indigenous Words: Exploring Vignettes as a Narrative Strategy for Presenting the Research Voices of Aboriginal Community Members, Qualitative Inquiry 2011 17: 522-33

Galaskiewicz, J and Wasserman, S (1994) Introduction in S. Wasserman, & J. Galaskiewicz, Advances in social network analysis. 1994, pp. xi-xvii: Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage.

McDermott, M. & Samson, F. L. (2005) White racial and ethnic identity in the United States, Annual Review of Sociology, 31:245–61

Nicholls, R. (2009) Research and Indigenous participation: critical reflexive methods, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(2): 117–126

Nursey-Bray M. and Haugstetter, H. (2011) More Than a Marriage of Convenience: The Convergence of Management and Indigenous Educational Practice, Journal of Management Education 2011 35: 168-86

Pink, S. (2001) Doing Visual Ethnography, Sage: London

Waghid, E. V. (2001). Transforming university teaching and learning through a reflexive praxis. South African Journal of Higher Education, 15, 77-83.


  1. I find this post especially thought provoking. Thank you for discussing the issue of indigenous research. I am doing research at a hospital in Malawi where I worked for some years. Although now I am not there full time, I have gone back to do field research on-site. In some ways I felt it was important to not have the leadership participate in the design of the study since I was also analyzing the management practices. I appreciate your work and have been following your publications over the past few years. One of the few researchers I can find that is studying management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Thank you!

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