There’s more to collaboration than correcting colonial power imbalances

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?”
(p19)

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.”
(p15)

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”.
(p17)

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).

Lassiter, L (2005), The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Laing, R (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

For the full text of my presentation on blogging as open source research, go HERE.

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2 responses to “There’s more to collaboration than correcting colonial power imbalances

  1. Hi Natalie,
    I’m glad you’re posting these snippets of your talk from the other week.
    One question I wondered about with collaboration (and this isn’t intended as something directly related to your work) is how it would play out in situations where the anthropologist is working with those who might not be particularly likable … research on white supremacists, for example. What sorts of relationships have to be maintained in order to collaborate successfully? And, if those relationships don’t exist, is collaboration still possible?

  2. To be honest, I don’t really know! It’s taken me a while to think through a response and I still haven’t really come up with much…

    My experience is that even in groups of people I expect to like, there are usually people I don’t. And, in groups that I expect not to like, I’m often surprised/embarrassed to discover there are people I like. We always have pre-conceptions about our future collaborators before we enter the field. My suspicion is those pre-conceptions are pretty regularly confounded.

    My commitment to collaboration does not necessarily entail a commitment to agreement with the actions/ideas of the group I’m working with. But it does involve a commitment to listening, trying very hard to understand them as people and being open with them when I disagree (see the next post on conflict). I suppose I want to leave open the possibility for dialogue even to the extent that I might be persuaded by the people that I’m working with about the validity of their truth claims. Perhaps, even if they’re white supremacists?

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