Reflecting on Research Collaboration: Before, During and After ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’

photo of Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans
School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex, UK

David Wilkins
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK

[Reprinted with permission by the Social & Legal Studies Blog]

Recently, our co-authored article ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’ was published in the April 2019 print issue of Social & Legal Studies. The article had, however, been complete for some time and first appeared online in late 2017. Here we provide some reflections on how we came to write the article, what the article does and – especially – what we have been doing since its publication online and how this relates the themes and research underpinning the article.

What the article does and how we came to write it

The article began life in 2015 when both of us were postdoctoral fellows at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. David’s research up to that point had been focused on repairing the harms of transatlantic slavery and on mutual lessons from the histories of transatlantic slavery and South Africa. Matthew’s research had been focused on the roles of social movements, trade unions and nongovernmental organisations in networks working on socioeconomic rights-related issues, and on developing and applying the concept of transformative justice to the analysis of post-conflict and post-authoritarian contexts, focusing especially on post-apartheid South Africa. The article came out of bringing several of these areas of focus together.

In the article we consider lessons that debates surrounding transitional justice and transformative justice could offer to discussions regarding reparations for transatlantic slavery. We apply lessons from these debates to a consideration of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Ten-Point Plan for reparations, which, at the time we began working on the article, was relatively new and had begun to generate debate in scholarly and popular outlets. Offering a ‘supportive yet provocative critique’ of the CARICOM claim, we argue that that ‘reparations movements could strengthen their claims against wealthy and powerful actors by adopting a more radical, less limited approach to understanding, explaining and framing their claims’. In particular, we suggest that ‘[r]eparations movements need… to take account of the limitations and contradictions – as well as the potential – present in pursuing justice (in part at least) through reparations programmes’ and posit that ‘the specific injustice of transatlantic slavery requires acknowledgement and redress’, but that ‘this must be in addition to’, not ‘instead of, addressing current injustices which ultimately have complex roots (including but not limited to slavery)’.

To make our argument, the article draws on the literatures we had each been contending with in our research, and the debates in which we had been separately intervening. We draw upon Matthew’s work, which advances the argument first, that transformative justice ought to be considered separate to but overlapping with transitional justice Secondly, that it must take a longer-term view than transitional justice. And thirdly, that it must be oriented towards addressing structural violence and socioeconomic rights violations, rather than only the direct interpersonal violence and civil and political rights violations mainstream transitional justice has tended to be concerned with. We also draw upon David’s research highlighting the roles of history and truth telling in addressing the legacies of past injustices. This work led to David co-editing a special section of the South African Historical Journal on ‘Repairing the Legacies of Harm’ in 2017 and, in 2018, to publishing a chapter in Africa and its Diasporas: Rethinking Struggles for Recognition and Empowerment, edited by Behnaz A Mirzai and Bonny Ibhawoh.

Our article draws upon – and, we hope, contributes to – scholarship across a number of disciplines and fields: law, politics, history, human rights, memory studies (to name but a few). We hope that by bringing together these areas value has been added to debates about addressing historical wrongs, reparations, transitional justice and transformative justice. Moreover, we hope that the impact of our article, whether in our own ongoing work or in that of others, is not merely academic in the sense of being divorced from practical application.

What we did next

Since writing our co-authored article we have been working (separately) in areas which touch upon a number of the themes and issues we explored in the piece. Matthew’s research has continued to focus on human rights and related activism, and on theorising and applying transformative justice. In 2018 he published a monograph (Transformative Justice: Remedying Human Rights Violations Beyond Transition) focused on this, and in early 2019 he published a follow-up edited collection (Transitional and Transformative Justice: Critical and International Perspectives), to which David also contributed a chapter. David’s chapter builds upon several of the themes of our co-authored piece including:

  1. the importance of considering means of repairing historical wrongs beyond financial reparations;
  2. the possibility of lessons from transitional justice and transformative justice to be applied to injustices rooted in the deeper past than recent periods of conflict or authoritarianism;
  3. the importance of educational and cultural sites such as schools and museums for addressing injustices in society.

These themes are also present throughout David’s other recent works, such as his chapter in The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (2019).

Moreover, David has taken his focus upon the possibilities for schools to act as sites of repair for historical injustices further than the recommendations made in the concluding remarks of scholarly papers. Whilst he continues to publish research, since 2017 he has been working as a secondary school teacher in history and religious studies. His research and teaching practice interact not least in how he has taught the history of transatlantic slavery to Key Stage Three students (those aged between 11 and 14), including encouraging students to research historical individuals frequently overlooked in schools, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, and to question who gets to tell the stories about the past – and what impact this might have. What is more, having sought to conceptualise schools and museums as sites in which reparatory processes of historical truth telling could be facilitated through revised historical curricula, he has found it enlightening to spend time in schools and to become more informed as to the obstacles for schools to act in such a way. In particular, these obstacles include schools’ constrained funding (for new resources and the staff training which would, in many cases, be required) and the pressures that already exist for schools due to other existing demands on timetabling and curricula and exam directives.

What next?

Moving forward, we both have research plans which continue to address issues which we engage with in our co-authored article. David is working on a monograph which more fully sets out the research he has done on museums’ engagement with addressing the harmful histories and legacies of transatlantic slavery. He is also co-editing a volume exploring the nature of and changes in historical and contemporary slavery, and is increasingly interested in how the lessons of historical slavery and abolition can inform debates over contemporary forms of slavery and their eradication. Matthew is currently planning new research on the relationships between trade unions and human rights organisations as well as continuing research on transformative justice. Building on our interdisciplinary collaboration experience, he has also been developing work on interdisciplinarity and postdisciplinarity in rights and justice research.


This blog follows the publication of M. Evans and D. Wilkins, ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’ (2019) 28(2) Social & Legal Studies 137-157.  The paper is free-to-view for a limited time at the link below (correct at 03 June 2019)


Matthew Evans is a Teaching Fellow in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex, UK and is a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He completed his PhD at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, UK.

David Wilkins is a secondary school teacher and historian in Southend, Essex, UK and is affiliated with the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK. He has a PhD in Law from the University of Hull and was Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Heritage Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2014-2016.

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