For Luke Lassiter, collaboration is an attempt to redress (typically colonial) power imbalances between the researcher and the researched. He asks:
“When does anthropology serve the very relationships created and maintained by anthropological practice? How can anthropology become relevant for our consultants?”
Collaborative approaches view the people we work with not as subjects, but consultants, collaborators, co-creators.
Collaboration is not a new idea to anthropology. At some level all ethnography is collaborative. But Lassiter suggests that what is new is the move to push collaboration from its “taken-for-granted background and put it at centre stage” (p16) and “that establishes as a main goal the writing of ethnography with local community consultants as active collaborators in that process” (p17).
But I think there’s more to it than that. There is other philosophical precedent.
I understand collaborative research to be grounded in a commitment to dialogue and a responsibility to the other. I’ve tried reading some Levinas, and mostly it washes over me, but I am persuaded by his call for a responsibility to the Other merely in light of coming face-to-face with them as another being. The other places ethical demands on us, lays claim to us. For Levinas an ethics of responsibility precedes any objective searching after truth. That is, the people we work with are more important than the work we do.
My commitment to collaborative research also comes from an expectation that I won’t be able to understand the other in a perfect sense. That my reading and translation of another’s experience – their culture – will be enriched by engaging in dialogue with them about my interpretations. Collaboration isn’t only about redressing power imbalance. It’s also about achieving deeper “co-interpretations” (Lassiter p12).
The Psychiatrist RD Laing puts it this way:
“I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.”
I wouldn’t be here, though, if I thought this doomed any social science that attempts to interpret the experience of someone else to utter failure. I think Laing would suggest that it is always limited, but that as we experience one another experiencing – as we respond to one another – we get closer to sharing something of each other’s experience. He says:
“Since your and their experience is invisible to me as mine is to you and them, I seek to make evident to the others, through their experience of my behaviour, what I infer of your experience, through my experience of your behaviour”.
My commitment to collaboration, therefore, is both ethical (I owe it to the people I work with to collaborate with them) and epistemological (I think it’s a better method for getting good information about how others experience the world).
For the full text of my presentation on blogging as open source research, go HERE.