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Transforming Perspectives: Southern Epistemologies and the Art of Empathy

In Padova, being challenged is part of the charm. We arrived in such an international city with the certainty that we are going to leave more knowledgeable than when we first arrived. New ideas are revealed to us constantly, and our horizons broaden every single day. The tricky and magnetic part is that we all come here with our baggage of wisdom that is shaped by our culture, education, and society which is forever transformed and enriched by the exposure to new environments. This means, that our ideas may be contested and that we may have to contest some others. When I first arrived here, I felt like Padova was ready to receive another international student. The exchange of ideas and welcoming people was thrilling. Jumping into the unknown all of a sudden didn’t feel scary or lonely. Nevertheless, I felt as if this dialogue was not always horizontal.


When I first arrived here, I realized that occasionally, my knowledge and experience would not be as valued. Generalizing adjectives such as “problematic” or “underdeveloped” were used from time to time to talk about Latin America. I felt stuck in the narrative that a whole region, which fosters my home and culture, was inferior, and that it needed help, an upgrade. Besides that, when I heard some examples of how the region was analyzed it seemed that some research was constructed to continue the narrative that the Global South offered all of the problems and Europe all of the answers. Even if it is true that Latin America faces challenges every day (like all regions do), this labeling felt like no self-determination could be made. So, how can we, in academia or journalism, move away from this rhetoric and into an approach that would not leave some people -like me- feeling inadequate?


In a human rights setting, we might feel drawn to talk about different challenges worldwide, which leads to speaking up, exposing, contesting structures, and offering solutions. When approaching unknown settings and/or regions we must remember that we don’t have all the answers and even more, that European solutions may not be one size fits all. We must recognize that our university context allows us to share information and study freely different phenomena, but we must avoid speaking over people who experience the challenges and making harmful generalizations.


It might seem rather redundant but, when approaching the Global South it is important to use information from the Global South. Drifting away from Eurocentric models of knowledge will allow a wider and more comprehensive understanding. Southern Epistemology is still as scientific, complex, and in-depth as the one developed in other regions of the world. It is important to highlight that knowledge is built in a specific way that might exclude many others. This is called “coloniality in knowledge production”. Using Southern Epistemology allows us to understand the baggage that historical, political, and economic contexts have played in the development of the region and the power imbalances of why some of our knowledge is not deemed significant.


If you're approaching the Global South, try to find some of their resources! Delve furthermore into their journals, their community leaders, their opposition, and their political structure. We might feel tempted to practice value judgments based on solutions in our environment that seem to work. Nevertheless, we must practice a conscious exercise to understand if our solution is comparable to the existing structures of the study but also viable within an institutional, legal, political, and economic framework.


Most importantly, remember that we might be approaching challenges that affect very real people. We must not fail to recognize the intersection of vulnerabilities some people might face. When tackling issues that arise in the Global South, it's essential to keep in mind that the communities and individuals affected are not just a means to an end for meeting academic requirements or career advancements. We must approach them with sensibility, humble enough to understand that we are there to learn and listen and if we can contribute. If we do not agree with some statements, remember that part of contesting ideas and structures of inequality is also listening to what the counterpart has to say to give an eloquent and viable answer. Above all, avoid “academic extractivism” which means extracting knowledge without recognizing the people who produce it for your benefit. Different from plagiarism, the concept of academic extractivism relies on using the knowledge from marginalized communities to advance academic careers without providing a real benefit to the communities.


Also, try different methodological approaches! If you're dealing with marginalized groups within a country that might be affected by the government, try using different sources. All the data will probably not be in institutional resources, try looking for grassroots organizations, or interviewing, and listening to their stories. Do not undermine the power of using qualitative methodologies to understand the inputs that the Global South has to offer.


Approaching all of this is not easy, it requires an open-mindedness and willingness to understand the different perspectives that challenge predominant outlooks. But ultimately, it offers a different way to understand the world and our relationship with it. I grew up listening to stories about grandparents fighting the devil on the mountains (and obviously winning). Rather than dismissing it as a -weird- story, it, later on, evolved into academic research about the indigenous resistance against the imposition of foreign belief systems. There is so much meaning and knowledge that these epistemologies can offer, that is important to approach them with respect, and sensibility, trying to amplify existing voices and in the process, also using our own.


Written by Mariana Carvajal Sojo

Edited by Christine Nanteza


Mariana is a first-year student of the Masters in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance at the University of Padova. Originally from Costa Rica, she graduated in Political Science at the University of Costa Rica.


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