Anthropological work

I’m pretty committed to collaborative research. I’m sold on the idea that research should serve the people you work with rather than being driven by elite academic/political/careerist motivations.

What I find really valuable about work on collaborative research is its critical reflection on how, historically,  power has been wielded by the academy for its own purposes (or even for the purposes of other less savory institutions) and seeks to redress that by giving power over the research process back to the people academics do research with.

Sometimes, though, when I read stuff about collaborative research it sounds like all the work is being done by the consultants. It can sound like the researcher is nothing more than a glorified archivist and meeting administrator.

But I’m pretty sure there has to be some anthropological work for the researcher to do. Why would people want you to work with them if you brought nothing valuable with you to the project? Surely they could do it themselves?

I am convinced the researcher has to bring something to the project that wouldn’t otherwise be available to the community in order for their work to have any function or purpose. I suspect this ‘something’ might include things like knowledge about other research that has been done in similar contexts, theoretical rigour, experience gathering meaningful data/stories from collaborators, a network of connections to other places of power, and analytical skill.

All of which leaves me with this question: how is it possible for a researcher to bring a valuable set of necessary skills to the research process without creating a power imbalance between themselves and their research collaborators?

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5 responses to “Anthropological work

  1. Interesting post on what I think is a significant topic. I have a lot less experience in academia and only some experience in ‘facilitating’ community activities, but I cannot help but wonder a few things.
    How can anybody know what a group ‘wants’? By engaging people in collaborative research how much are you changing the group’s power structure? If you are does this matter?
    What happens if you disagree with the agenda that emerges?

    I suppose a lot of my questions come from my own discomfort with the ability to shape agendas I have experienced in facilitation roles. I also feel that in PhD research even if there is not a power imbalance ‘in the field’ ultimately there is a mismatch in aims. As a researcher there is an obligation to understand and as a student I need to develop a thesis that I can claim as mine.

    However, I see why this doesn’t make collaborative research bad. Afterall, it is probably rare for understandings and aims to match up in any context, even when a group exists to promote or carry out a certain action.

  2. Natalie Swann

    Lassiter has a really interesting discussion in his book on the way feminist writers have both championed collaborative methods and found them really unsettling at the same time — since sometimes the ‘oppressed’ or ‘valiant’ women they want to write about don’t agree with those characterisations! One of the scholars he talks about who had to negotiate this was Elaine Lawless, who ended up writing a kind of reciprocal ethnography in which she allowed her research collaborators to write responses to her analysis and published them as a kind of dialogue (I think the book is called Holy Women, Wholly Women). I’m not sure it’s perfect, but at least it’s trying to work through the issues!

  3. Ah! I’ll have to check out the reciprocal ethnography at some stage.

    Slightly off topic, and it might already be in the book you are talking about, is this research method that Ann Swidler writes about- conversational journals.
    http://sociology.berkeley.edu/profiles/swidler/pdf/Watkins%20and%20Swidler%20Conversational%20Journals%20FINAL%20080329.pdf

  4. I know very little about anthrolpology but I would think that the existence of a power imbalance and the effects of a power imbalance are different things.

    I’m inclined to think that a power imbalance is inevitable to some degree in any group and that whether the useful skills you bring give you a greater measure of power in some things is, in any case, not something you can change.

    I’m guessing that it is much more important to think through how to manage any power imbalance (for relational and for research reasons) and how to factor it into your thinking and conclusions.
    You seem to be trying to do that.
    Have I missed something?

  5. Thanks Heather. Yes, I think you’re right that the existence of a power imbalance and its effects are different things.

    I suppose part of the way I think about managing a power imbalance is to give power over to the people I’m working with. Actively handing over directional or analytical control. But at the same time, analytical skill is kind of what I hope to bring to the table. I reckon it becomes a very difficult matter of assessing your own motives when you want to pull your research consultants in a direction they don’t want to go. What happens when your concern for academic rigor conflicts with something your consultants want? Why should (modern, Western) notions of academic rigor trump the wishes of a community you’re doing research with?

    I suspect you figure it out on the fly…

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