Democratic capabilities research: an undergraduate experience to advance socially just higher education in South Africa
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Universities are complex institutions that need to be in constant questioning and iteration to improve and serve the larger society. Nevertheless, the latest protests in the South African higher education institutions are a sign of challenging times. Protests have recognised the perpetuation of inequalities and the need to decolonise institutions. Furthermore, this debate has been ongoing within academia for decades, looking for ways to confront the colonial issues, especially in the area of knowledge production, investigating how knowledge is produced and distributed within the dominant system. Many of these concerns are related to European-Western domination over other ways of producing knowledge, jeopardising the wide range of knowledge systems in the world. This highlights the substantial importance of scrutinising how we create knowledge as scholars and how we can advance towards social justice by overcoming these persistent challenges, especially within higher education institutions in the Global South. Participatory methods, methodologies, and research processes are part of this internal intellectual project within higher education institutions trying to challenge the persistence of colonial issues. This field has developed into a fruitful and legitimate research area awash with a diversity of theoretical and practical insights, not only related to decolonisation and knowledge democratisation, but also focusing on action and participation. Nevertheless, the result has been a very diverse field that pervasively embraces various theoretical and practical perspectives, often contradictory, leading to theoretical and practical inconsistencies, incongruences and contradictions. To take up this challenge, the Capabilities Approach proposes a theoretical space to reflect and reconsider epistemological, methodological and operational issues, providing a solid people- centred theoretical frame. Moreover, participatory methods, methodologies, and research processes, have been drawing on capabilities lenses in multiple development and educational interventions. Nonetheless, this capabilities research area is still under-researched and is far from having reached its full potential. Scholars within the capabilities sphere have not yet achieved a consensual proposal such as a participatory capabilities-based research. Thus, the research questions that guided this study are: How can a participatory capabilities-based research project be conceptualised and implemented in the light of the CA and participatory approaches towards socially just higher education, given the academic gap between both fields and incongruences within participatory approaches? Which opportunities, challenges and lessons with regard to social justice and capabilities expansion emerge from a participatory capabilities-based case study with undergraduate students in South Africa towards socially-just higher education? Which capabilities do these undergraduate students have reason to value and why? Which of these capabilities are being expanded through the involvement in a participatory capabilities-based case study experience? This project innovatively conceptualises and applies this participatory capabilities-based research as ‘Democratic Capabilities Research’ (DCR). It outlines DCR as a reflexive and pedagogical space to advance more just practices, especially in the context of hierarchical knowledge practices in universities in the South, and the marginalisation of youth voices in knowledge production. The ambition is to both generate democratic and inclusive knowledge creation and advance social justice, through the theorisation and empirical exploration of a DCR case study in South Africa. Therefore, the methodology used for this research is a case study of a DCR participatory research project. This case study not only investigates the application of a DCR project but also its production throughout the project as a research outcome. The case study was developed and implemented at a previously historically advantaged Afrikaans-speaking research and teaching university in South Africa. A group of twelve volunteer undergraduate students worked as co- researchers with the doctoral research fellow over one academic year. In the process, they challenged persistent institutional hierarchies and their marginal position in university structures of knowledge production. Multiple data sources were collected over the year (2017), including individual interviews at three different stages of the DCR project, personal journals produced by each of the co-researchers and the researcher, and participant observation over the nine DCR workshops. In undertaking the case study, the project also confronted the dilemma around legitimate knowledge and legitimate forms of knowledge production. Thus, the study had to deal with the tensions of non-ideal research settings, and between producing a doctoral study and the actual practices of DCR, and how these ‘legs’ of the research both go together, yet are separate. The study shows that a participatory capabilities-based conceptualisation of a participatory research can challenge and resolve some of the actual limitations within the broad family of participatory approaches. Thus, the study presents five foundational principles for DCR to guide participatory practices. Furthermore, the study reveals that capabilities are rich sources of information to design and evaluate participatory projects such as DCR. However, the capabilities chosen to guide us should be valued capabilities by the participants and not generic capabilities lists, such as Nussbaum’s central capabilities. The findings show that valued capabilities are dynamic, latent and contextual and therefore we have good reasons to explore these specificities in order to orient our DCR participatory practice in the direction of the lives the participants have reasons to value. Additionally, the findings highlight the impact of using individual valued capabilities as evaluative frames. Presenting two student cases from among the twelve participants, the data shows that getting to know the participants before our participatory practices, understanding the way they enjoy their capabilities before the project commences, can enhance the way we assess our DCR practice by exploring functionings among their valued capabilities. In this way, the evaluative space is expanded and avoids previous paternalist frames directing our practices towards the lives the participants want to lead. Moreover, as DCR goes beyond capabilities expansion and achievement, the theorisation of DCR is presented and revised after the empirical data has been analysed in order to review the five initial principles guiding us in our capabilities-based participatory practice. The significance of this study is based on an unexplored research area linking capabilities with participatory research practices. Furthermore, the study intentionally uses an open-ended perspective of the CA that highlights its potential as a grassroots approach to provide an original and locally related research alternative in the form of DCR, towards a more just, decolonial and democratic way of knowledge creation within Global South higher education institutions.