Institutional Limits on Collaborative Anthropology: More on SSHRC Funding in Canada

Backdrop to a Non-Starter

Recently I have been considering the prospects for a collaborative (action) research project between myself and some of the younger members of Trinidad’s Carib community who have years of working experience in the local media and local publishing industry — bright, articulate, committed individuals with an eagerness to implement their own training in research, to conduct their own local archival research, to produce their own video documentaries, and finally to learn how to create, manage and host their own website (and “wrest” that function from me). The project would have been titled something like “Recovering Indigenous Heritage“, and would have involved the training of Carib youth to, among other things, research 200 year old baptismal registers of Trinidad’s 16 former mission villages, to create a genealogical database for all Trinidadians of Carib ancestry especially in light of the government’s refusal to admit any category on the national census for people of who wish to self-identify as indigenous, Amerindian, or Carib. In addition, an aim would have been to create an online network linking Caribs in Trinidad with those in the diaspora, to set up local conferences and national gatherings, to archive indigenous self-knowledge, and to disseminate it, while critically investigating how images of indigeneity have been disseminated to date. It had the potential for being an important project that could have led to valuable local transformations — keep in mind that the Carib identity has historically been one of the most stigmatized in the Caribbean, the result of the institutionalization of shame that has formed one part of the cultural process of genocide that has caused many families to suppress their identities.

But what would have been a vital part of such a project was to work in tandem, and at least on par with Trinidadian Carib counterparts, as formal co-researchers, as equals in the administration of research funds, especially since they are based in Trinidad and would be coordinating events “on the ground” in ways, and for a duration, that I could not possibly do at a distance. So what’s the problem?

SSHRC’s Notions of Collaboration: Fear of the Non-Academic Other?

As I have already mentioned, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada remains one of the central, if not exclusive sources of funding for anthropologists in Canada. Most anthropologists will tend to apply for the “Standard Research Grant” (SRG). The SRG does allow for collaboration, of sorts. Let’s look at what SSHRC considers to be appropriate and applicable “collaboration” in terms of applying for and managing grant funds.

First, there is the definition of the role which I would occupy:

Applicant (principal investigator/project director): an individual who has primary responsibility for the intellectual direction of the research and who assumes administrative responsibility for the grant. In the case of team research, the principal investigator/project director is understood to be responsible for the overall leadership of the research team. Eligibility requirements may vary with specific programs. In most cases, applicants for SSHRC’s research, strategic and communications grants must be affiliated with a Canadian postsecondary institution.

Second, various complementary roles are then outlined:

Co-applicant (co-investigator): an individual who makes a significant contribution to the intellectual direction of the research, plays a significant role in the conduct of the research, and who may also have some responsibility for financial aspects of the research. In the case of the Standard Research Grants and the Research/Creation in Fine Arts programs, the eligibility criteria for co-applicants are the same as those for the applicant. (What that means is that a co-applicant must also be an academic based at a Canadian university, end of story.)

Collaborator: a scholar or researcher who may play various roles in a research project or program of research, including participating in setting its intellectual direction. Collaborators do not need to be affiliated with a Canadian postsecondary institution.

Other assistants and support staff: individuals employed to assist the research team to conduct its research who are neither students nor members of the research team. Research assistants must be citizens or permanent residents of Canada unless it can be shown that qualified candidates are not available in Canada or that the proposed research requires the hiring of assistants abroad.

What this means then, in light of the kind of project I outlined in the first section, is that my Carib partners could, at best, be classed as “assistants” or “support staff.” All one needs to add here is: “This is the bucket, and this is the mop, finish the floors by 5:00pm.” It simply is nowhere near adequate, acceptable, or even ethical to work with collaborators who are meager subordinates, and who have no decision-making power of their own, and no funds to manage on a day-to-day basis. The only way to do this is, quite plainly, to circumvent SSHRC’s guidelines, ignore the labels above, and simply transfer the funds under various guises…and then be caught in “wrongdoing and misconduct” and either be blacklisted by SSHRC or even be sued for the return of the funds. And monitor they do: this the organization that pinpointed my purchase of pens as an ineligible expense (I am not allowed to write fieldnotes with SSHRC funds), among thousands of expense reports it had read during an audit at my home institution, and that had “questions” about a cocktail that I organized for colleagues at a seminar I hosted in Montreal (and for which I paid out of pocket). They learned of the cocktail from a document on my project website — amazing that they were the only ones in the end to have read the contents of the site so carefully. Therefore, it is not a good idea to try to be clever and engage in flexible interpretations when dealing with SSHRC.

Surely, there are other options?

Yes, indeed. One may work with community, voluntary, and non-profit organizations. So then that should solve the problem. At first SSHRC implemented what it called the “Community-University Research Alliances” scheme, and until very recently, the “community” had to be a Canadian one (so much for globalization, transnationalism, immigration, diaspora, etc.). Now it has the “International Community-University Research Alliances ” — SSHRC is dynamic after all, the reader will exclaim, and only a cantankerous naysayer could persist in finding fault with SSHRC.

But wait, the International CURA comes with one very big string attached: it must be conducted in alliance with one of the Government of Canada’s international development arms, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). As a result, only a finite and short list of acceptable areas of work are permitted, that fit within developmentalist goals, goals that again are predetermined and not negotiated in partnership with a community — where is the collaboration? We set the goals, we create the plan, we administer the funds…and you collaborate.

In addition, the domestic and international CURA schemes are far bigger arrangements than “a Canadian researcher and his Trinidadian Carib counterpart”. These are major productions, involving multiple disciplines, and multiple scholars from the Canadian university’s side (I can’t think of even one other person in my entire university who would even be vaguely interested in Carib anything, let alone participate as an active researcher). CURAs are associated with academic units within a university, such as a department, more than one unit ideally, and not a single researcher within the university.

Debating Collaboration

Clearly there is a spectrum of possible notions of collaboration. In the colonial context, the collaborator, as typecast in works such as Frantz Fanon’s, was a lowly, subservient pawn who aided the colonizers to reduce the threat to his or her own existence. The old ethnographic fieldwork situation, where the researcher asked the questions and the native supplied the answers, is also collaboration. In fact, let’s take matters to the absolute extreme: I own all resources, I occupy all offices of authority, and I give commands…and if you play any role, even as a groveling servant, you are still collaborating with me.

I do not think, however, that when we speak of anthropological collaboration, and develop notions of partnership, consultation, and negotiation as can be found in our professional codes of conduct, that we are looking for groveling servants. Agencies such as SSHRC, which monopolize public research funding — and it’s a federal body, in a country where the provinces are supposedly in charge of funding university education, so something is unclear to me here — have clearly “stacked the deck” against applicants such as myself who would truly like to take collaboration to new levels. Any new avenue proves to be a new dead end.

What also remains unclear to me — and this kind of information SSHRC definitely does not publish — is who are the persons and agencies responsible for deciding which programs SSHRC will create and fund, and how they are created, and who decides the criteria for eligibility and why.

As far as I can see at present, one initial solution would be for a decentralization and devolution of research funding to universities themselves, with public funds allocated equally on a per capita basis to each institution. In this manner, we can hold discussions among parties who are familiar to one another, who are in more or less regular contact within the university, and who can discuss and negotiate at length and produce tailor-made funding to suit the specificities of individual research projects, instead of the current model of “we create the schemes, you figure out how to fit in.” That is not how to support “research innovation” — and I suspect that if we set aside the glossy hype, it will be revealed that SSHRC has as much of federal political plan as anything else.