By questioning norms, we can create ‘disobedient knowledge’ that helps to understand the world in new ways

Migration and refugees will remain hot topics for some time to come. Is it possible to have a shared agenda even if we have different societal positions and historical knowledge? Disobedient knowledge can help us understand each other better.

Disobedient knowledge becomes possible when existing structures and global power relations are questioned. Disobedient knowledge enables us to better understand how the world has been shaped by colonial ideas and to seek knowledge beyond Eurocentric epistemological beliefs.

In Western societies, we often take it for granted that the knowledge we acquire at school and read about in the history books is correct. Our view of the world and knowledge is Eurocentric, that is, written from a European perspective that centres on European experience and history.

This Eurocentric perspective entails a disregard for the significance of colonialism for those parts of the world that were colonised by European countries for more than 400 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean islands, but also demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how European colonialism and the slave trade have shaped Europe and its perception of the world. The geopolitical power relations that developed during colonialism continue to influence current economic relations and knowledge production. The events of today have their roots in the past.

“We must look to the past to understand our society today. We must also understand that these power relations exist in Finnish society,” says Academy of Finland Research Fellow Suvi Keskinen of the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science.

Keskinen heads the project Intersectional Border Struggles and Disobedient Knowledge in Activism, funded by the Academy of Finland. The project aims to identify alternatives to exclusionary nationalism and the liberal multiculturalism that has been the subject of broad criticism.

Read more: Academy fund­ing re­war­ded to the Swedish School of So­cial Science

Disobedient knowledge is a concept originating in decolonial theory and refers to knowledge that takes into account the experiences of migrants and racialised minorities concerning power relations, the consequences of border policies and everyday life. Disobedient knowledge can emerge through meetings between people with different positions in the racialised social order when prevailing norms and ideas are questioned, and people are forced to reflect on structures that produce inequalities. Such situations can create new ways of seeing and understanding the world.

“The world extends beyond Europe, and knowledge has been created in other parts of the world and in epistemological traditions other than ours,” Keskinen notes.

“Creating disobedient knowledge means delinking from the Eurocentric and colonial tradition of knowledge through a critical examination of prevailing epistemological norms and concepts. It may mean, for example, exploring Finnish history in relation to European colonialism and the various ways in which Finns participated in the colonial project as well as incorporating the often forgotten stories of ethnic minorities and indigenous people into the national narrative. If we think about society today, it is important to value the knowledge that, for instance, migrants and asylum seekers have rather than demonising these heterogeneous groups, as is often done in, say, discussions on criminality and violence. In this project, we are interested in how different types of knowledge are brought together and how people discuss or negotiate them. It may also be painful, but these meetings provide opportunities for new knowledge,” Keskinen explains.

Disobedient knowledge can emerge, for example, when people racialised as non-white or “Other” make whiteness visible as a privileged position and critically examine normative whiteness as something others are judged against. Racialisation means ascribing stereotypical traits to people based on their appearance, ethnic group or assumed background. Racialisation is based on and reproduces societal power relations.

“People don’t necessarily pay attention to normative whiteness when they have a body that fits into that norm and don’t have to question themselves. But those who do not fit into the norm feel it acutely in their everyday lives. We can create new knowledge by reflecting on our different societal positions and exploring the power relations that characterise even everyday encounters,” Keskinen notes.

Campaigning for social justice

The activism and disobedient knowledge the project is investigating aim to question prevailing norms and structures, such as border and migration policies, exclusionary practices and everyday racism, and improve the rights of racialised minorities.

Opportunities for disobedient knowledge may emerge, for instance, when people with different societal positions organise themselves and take seriously the knowledge developed by migrants, racialised minorities and indigenous people in order to understand and change society. Such knowledge provides new perspectives on, for example, legislation, racialised practices and the historical narratives common in Finland. Activism does not always have to be militant – it can involve discussions, work groups and cooperation between those defined as the “Other” by prevailing norms and those who support them.

“It’s important to create disobedient knowledge because Finland is already home to quite a large number of people subjected to racism, and our society is characterised by racialised power relations that lead to the unequal distribution of resources. It’s time to change the exclusionary ideas and practices that expose certain groups and people to racism,” Keskinen points out.

Disobedient knowledge creates opportunities to cross borders and strives to effect societal change. Crossing borders that are based on belonging and racialised power relations requires exploration of new ways of working together. With the help of disobedient knowledge, people can together establish new ways of living and engaging in political activism even if they have different positions in society and the global system.

Migration and refugees will remain hot topics for some time to come. That is why it is important to investigate how we live together.

“Research on the history of migration shows that people have always moved from one place to another, and this will not change. Migration will probably be an even bigger issue in the future and will keep demanding our attention,” Keskinen concludes.

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Blog: Intersectional Border Struggles and Disobedient Knowledge in Activism (KNOWACT)

The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism at the Swedish School of Social Science


Gender, migration and racism are key issues in today’s welfare states. The KNOWACT (Intersectional Border Struggles and Disobedient Knowledge in Activism) project analyses everyday border struggles and collaborative knowledge production in anti-racist and feminist activism as well as in activism that seeks to improve the rights of migrants.

The project focuses especially on the role of gender, ethnicity, racialisation, class and age in shaping relations between activists and their cooperation. It also analyses the development of ‘disobedient knowledge’ through the inclusion of migrants’ and minorities’ knowledge and the cooperation of various actors in social movements. Thus, the project aims to identify alternatives to exclusionary nationalism and the liberal multiculturalism that has been the subject of criticism from a number of sources. Because migration as a phenomenon will not disappear and we are already living in a clearly diverse society, the project will seek answers to how people with different positionalities can seek for ways to socially just ways of living together.

KNOWACT consists of five sub-projects.

Postethnic Activism in the Neoliberal Era

Academy of Finland Research Fellow Suvi Keskinen’s sub-project focuses on activists mobilising around the racialised position as non-white or “Other”. The research examines activism in three Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The types of activism investigated include anti-racist feminism, activism in racialised suburbs and groups in social media. Keskinen’s sub-project analyses how activists see themselves as political actors, how they establish alliances with other groups in civil society, how they participate in discussions on racism in public spaces and what visions they have for a future society. Keskinen is also interested in how the new knowledge that activists create is received by journalists, politicians and others involved in public discussion.

Intersectional Border Struggles in Migrant Rights Activism

Postdoctoral Researcher Minna Seikkula’s sub-project explores activism focusing on border politics and supporting the rights of migrants. Seikkula analyses the type of activism that developed in Finland with the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants in autumn 2015 and how activism addresses questions of solidarity. What does solidarity mean to the different groups involved in activism, and has activism changed over time? Seikkula investigates the different perceptions of border policy, solidarity and cooperation developed in activism, with the participation of both asylum seekers and people permanently residing in Finland.

Participatory Creation of an Antiracism Mobile Application in Multicultural Schools

Postdoctoral Researcher Alemanji Aminkeng Atabong’s sub-project focuses on anti-racist education. Alemanji is working with young people in multicultural schools and youth centres to develop a mobile phone app for addressing issues of racism and anti-racism. Alemanji organises workshops where young people can experiment with existing mobile phone apps and together consider what type of app would best serve as a platform for discussion on racism and anti-racism. The research analyses different perceptions of racism and anti-racism addressed in meetings of young people from different backgrounds (relating to gender, ethnicity and racialisation) as well as opportunities for disobedient knowledge in such situations. 

Contesting Normative Whiteness in the Finnish Feminist Movement

Doctoral student Nelli Ruotsalainen’s sub-project analyses feminist activism and how activists relate to normative whiteness. The sub-project examines both the practices upholding whiteness as an invisible and self-evident norm and the practices through which feminist activists question and explore normative whiteness. Through participatory action research, Ruotsalainen seeks to produce knowledge together with feminist activists who are not themselves subjected to racism, but who wish to consider societal power relations and develop anti-racist practices. Ruotsalainen’s sub-project investigates whiteness as a position of power upheld through social practices, societal structures and norms.

Participatory Approach in Developing Equality Data: How to Use Statistics to Map and Counter Racial and Ethnic Inequalities in Finland

Doctoral student Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin’s sub-project works with ethnic and racialised minorities to explore what kind of statistics are needed to acquire sufficient knowledge about ethnic and racialised inequalities in Finnish society. The current ways of collecting data are based on information on citizenship, country of birth, parents’ country of birth and language. This makes it impossible or difficult to investigate certain relevant issues of ethnicity and racialisation with the current statistics. On the other hand, the collection of ethnic or racialised information is problematic, for it can be used to control and register minorities. The sub-project compares the methods used in Finland with those used in, for example, Britain and the US. The focus is on disobedient knowledge as a method of knowledge creation.

The common thread running through all the sub-projects is the aim of investigating how disobedient knowledge is created when people in different positions in the racialised and global power system cooperate with each other. The project aims to create change through the sharing of experiences and knowledge, which can establish new perspectives, for example, on issues of legislation, the norm of whiteness and the writing of history.

The project is funded by the Academy of Finland for a term from 2018 to 2022 and headed by Academy of Finland Research Fellow Suvi Keskinen of the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science. Keskinen also heads the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism at the Swedish School of Social Science.