Decolonialism and Formal Ontology: Self-critical Conceptual Modelling Practice
Digital humanists taking up the challenge of the decolonialist approach face, with regards to information management, the question of how to structure their data in a way which escapes the confines of the repressive episteme that they seek to challenge. And yet, the database and the data form have enormous potential to replicate and even intensify, in a new medium, the colonial intersection of knowledge and power. A data model operates, at least potentially, on its ‘subject’ as an authoritative power, disenfranchising the epistemological constellations of those it chooses to represent and submitting them to a colonial order of knowledge. Such subjugation can be argued to be represented in classic arrangements of knowledge like the ‘tombstone’ data explaining objects in museums and archaeological collections. In such data models, the analyses that go along with the object and which tie these objects into a web of knowledge privilege the interpretation of the scholars who speak of and for the object. It is often the agency of the ‘discovering’ or ‘gifting’ agent that is most associated to the object over/above the cultures, groups and individuals for whom the object was a living part of life and practice. (saywhatnathan, 2017) The digital humanist would work on a corpus of well-formatted data in order to build up a new knowledge, contesting colonial representations, but the epistemic, ethical and pragmatic challenge comes together here: what can be the form of this representation and how to conceptualize and maintain it, without re-introducing imperialistic paradigms?
In this question, the theoretical and practical interests of decolonialism and the discipline of knowledge engineering / formal ontology overlap and have the chance for a fruitful methodological dialogue. By decolonialist thought we intend the theoretical tendency building up from the post-colonialism of Said (1979) on to the work of Mignolo (2011), Borgstede (2010), and Smith (2012) amongst others. This movement looks to challenge the identification drawn between scientific practices originally developed in the West, meaning the traditions of European scholarship, and a universalist objectivity. The critique is undertaken in order to identify and recognize limits of the Western, scientific project, towards the end of opening a space for the self-articulation of suppressed modes of discourse, so that they can reach expression and be understood as autonomous spaces of potential truth disclosing, as elaborated under non-dominant conceptual paradigms. By knowledge engineering and formal ontology, we intend methods proposed since the 1990s (Gruber, 1995; Guarino, 2997; Smith, 2003) as a means to make better data structures within information systems by engaging in an interdisciplinary practice to build these latter through a disciplined dialogue between computer science, philosophy and the domain practitioners concerned. Established and well known applications of this method are known in the areas of linguistics with DOLCE and cultural heritage CIDOC CRM as described in Gangemi et al. (2002) and Doerr (2003).
The general aim of adopting a formal ontological approach in a research discipline or community is to serve as a means to robustly model data and create more accurate digital representations in a way that creates community consensus around the generic representational form. Within the digital humanities, formal ontology is an important tool to solve the long term data integration and data provenance problems that are correlate to the creation of ever greater datasets by scholars. A formal ontology offers much that the decolonialist digital humanist would need in their toolset. Can it, however, meet their epistemic and ethical requirements?
Here we would argue that decolonialist thinking and well founded formal ontological thinking share fundamental theoretical commitments which are mutually beneficial. The potential for enrichment is two-way, offering a path forward for an information structure suitable to decolonialist studies but also providing to formal ontology research an important control point. In particular, what binds together these two approaches is a shared commitment to a radical and critical approach to known epistemic structures. Both are committed to a self-reflexive critique which does not accept the given epistemic prejudice of the ‘form’ of scientificity but rather aims to critique it in order to understand a wider form. This is expressed in a radical empiricism in the sense of a deliberate openness to understanding from practice rather than from the formalisms of science. What is to be modelled is not what is said but what is done. This commitment on the part of formal ontology leaves the final model of information representation always open to modification. The work of the decolonialist scholar brings material that can continually challenge the prejudice in a model and cause its redesign. On the other hand, the open ended design of the formal ontological model which does not follow the logic of the data form but of an open ended graph of knowledge, allows for the representation of multiple perspectives and the multi-participation of objects in different epistemological formations.
An illustration of this self-reflexive and openly critical practice in action can be taken from the modelling of ‘discovery’ activities in the CIDOC CRM extension, CRMsci. (Doerr et al., 2017) Classic data representation and inbuilt cultural prejudice would offer the ‘intuitive’ category of ‘discovery’ to describe scientific observation activities such as ethnography, archaeology, botany and so on. Such categorizations, however, are one-sided and privilege the ‘discoverer’ while decentering and subjecting the ‘discovered’. Extensive, long-term dialogue and conversation over this issue, led to the elaboration of a general class of the ontology called ‘Encounter’. ‘Encounter’ avoids one-sidedness of representation and the implication that something comes to be known through the encounter event. It shifts the representation to a third party point-of-view, and allows modelling the fact that some group met some thing. This encounter finds an object and may produce new knowledge, for the group that has initiated an encounter activity, but not as such.
The intersection of decolonialist thought and knowledge engineering in the practice of digital humanism offers the opportunity to lift the tombstone off cultural knowledge and open it to expression and contention with the dominant episteme by means of the construction of open graphs of knowledge that empower the representation, reconstruction and expression of suppressed knowledge by the actors from whom it originates.
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