An original and timely contribution to the decolonialization of sport science

Kristin Walseth
Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet), Norway

Sepandarmaz Mashreghi
Decolonial Re-existence and Sports: Stories of Afghan youth in Sweden
235 pages, hft
Malmö: Malmö University 2021 (Malmö Studies in Sport Sciences)
ISBN 978-91-7877-218-6

Sepandarmaz Mashreghi’s thesis is pioneer work within Scandinavian sport sciences as it is one of the first studies that apply a decolonial perspective when studying the sport experience of youth living in Scandinavia. A strength of the thesis is that it is decolonial from the beginning to the end. This implies, in addition to using decolonial theory, a break with traditional ways of presenting research results and a strong focus on involving the participants (co-researchers) in the research process. The thesis does also give a strong contribution to methodological debates on researcher positionality and reflexivity.

Mashreghi has written an article-based thesis consisting of four articles and an introductory chapter. All articles are published, but the author reflects on the challenges experienced with getting this kind of research accepted for publication in sport science journals. The study is based on participant action research (PAR) with ten Afghan youth living in Sweden. They are so-called ‘unaccompanied’ children that arrived in Sweden between 2014-2016. At the time of the PAR project, they were all students in one secondary school in Sweden.

The introductory chapter starts with a Persian poem that sets the scene for the thesis. Mashreghi describes her Iranian background and the role of poems in Persian culture. This tradition is shared by her co-researchers that have migrated to Sweden from Afghanistan. Another experience that the author shares with her co-researchers is the migration experience and what she describes as borderland existence. Poems have a central role in the thesis, not only as a way of presenting data, but also as a foundation for the development of a shared epistemology between the principal researcher and her co-researchers.

The first article in the thesis, “Decolonizing Sport and Exercise Psychology Within a European Context. A Critical Overview” is published in Scandinavian Sport Studies Forum (2020). The article gives an overview of previous research on the ‘cultural other’ within sport psychology and concludes that there is a need for decolonializing the knowledge and scholarship within sport and exercise psychology by utilizing transformative approaches that centralize the voices of the cultural ‘other’ and treat them as active agents in the process of knowledge production.

By adopting the persona of the poet and by writing in a reflexive manner that does not obscure the authors own privileges, she works towards decolonializing the process of research and knowledge generation in the field of sport.

The second article, “Decolonial Stories of Forced Migrants in Physical Activity and Sport: “We the Afghan Kids” is published in the edited book Leisure and Forced Migration: Lives Lived in Asylum Systems (Ugolotti & Caudwell, 2022). In this article the author presents the empirical findings from the PAR project she conducted together with her co-researchers. The PAR project used arts-based methods such as drawings, poetry and poster-making to explore, analyze and portray the lives of the youths and their engagement in sports. The empirical findings are presented through two overarching stories that illustrate the youths’ agency in response to various encounters and experiences in their lives. Accompanying this agency, there is a deep engrained notion of self-awareness and introspection that ties their stories together.

The third article, “Methodological challenges and opportunities in working with a participatory paradigm in the context of sport, forced migration and settlement, an insider perspective” is published in Sport in Society: Cultures, commerce, media, politics (2021). The paper is co-authored with Shahrzad Enderle (PhD) who is involved in participatory research with refugee women in Germany. This is a methodology article that focuses on the challenges and affordances of working within a participatory paradigm from an insider perspective. The authors concludes that there is a need for a more open and honest discussions on the limitations of PAR projects and their aspirations. They argue that there is a risk of turning transformation (and decolonialization) into a metaphor that obscures and even reproduces larger systematic injustices.

New Years celebration dance in the South Khorasan province in eastern Iran.

The fourth article, “These are the stories of our physical activities, decolonial re-existence and poetryis published in TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses. The article presents the empirical findings from the researchers work with the Afghan co-researchers. The findings are presented through a narrative poem that the author has crafted using the voices of the participants. As such,  the author argue that the dissemination of the results is grounded in the shared epistemology of the Khorasani people of central/western Asia, which both the author and the co-researcher identify with. By adopting the persona of the poet and by writing in a reflexive manner that does not obscure the authors own privileges, she works towards decolonializing the process of research and knowledge generation in the field of sport.

The introductory chapter includes a reflection of how her work and theoretical understanding has developed throughout the PhD process. For example, she reflects on how she has moved away from the individual discipline of sport psychology (article 1) and adopted, instead, a more comprehensive view of knowledge that is not limited to a single onto-epistemological framework. Moreover, she reclaims the epistemology of the borders (her Khorasani heritage and position as immigrant scholar) while gesturing towards decolonialization. The author also reflects on the limitations of the PAR methodology when doing decolonializing projects. An experience from the project is that the approach did not make the lasting systemic transformation which often is the goal in both PAR and decolonializing projects.

It is a paradox that the research design for this PhD project is made with the goal of empowering the co-researchers, and still, what I find lacking in the thesis are the voices of the co-researchers. As article 1 (literature overview) and article 3 (method article) is non-empirical articles, it is only space for the co-researchers voices in article 2 and 4. While arts-based methods like drawings and poems are certainly appropriate approaches in this study, an implication of presenting all empirical data through a well-edited poem (article 4) and two overarching stories (article 2) is that the reader is left with the feeling of not really getting to know the co-researchers and their sport experiences.

These objections notwithstanding, Mashreghi’s PhD thesis is an important contribution to the field of sport science and a worthwhile read for those interested in the timely and important topic of decolonialization.

Copyright © Kristin Walseth 2022

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