And what if I do not want to do “collaborative anthropology”?

“…then remove the uncollaborator from our midst and drag him by his heels to the gallows, where he shall be hung from his neck until life doth depart from his flesh…”

I believe that some might have expected me to answer in the manner of the fictitious quote above.

Thus far, whenever I have spoken of “collaborative” work between researchers and their non-academic partners (because one can also speak of collaboration between researchers themselves) I have tended to present an argument that was only “positive,” and by that I mean this was presented as the way to go in decolonizing the discipline, heightening its public engagement, and opening the process of knowledge production to less elitist/”professional” modes. There are a number of limitations, however, that need to be addressed.

One of these is that collaboration is a process, and the process really tells us little about results… except that the results were produced from collaboration. Moreover, collaboration in and of itself cannot take the place of ethics (there can be unethical collaboration — collaboration between anthropologists and military counterinsurgency has been a dominant topic on this blog; collaboration that aims at producing false data and distorted interpretations designed to win benefits for a particular interest group, and so forth) — nor does it stand in for a political stance (it is not automatically about liberation and social justice, since of course an anthropologist could also collaborate with very powerful groups, or with less powerful but very violent sectarian groups). So far I am leaving aside what collaboration can really mean, what forms it can take, what are the multiple and diverse activities that could be included under the heading of collaboration. So we have a question to address: if collaboration is simply a means toward an end, an end that could presumably be achieved by a variety of means, then why should collaboration even occupy our attention? Is the question of ends not the more important one?

Some have argued, and will continue to argue, that collaboration is in fact political and ethical. But it strikes me that this is true only if the target of change is a singular one: the role of the academic.

Collaboration is political in the sense that it undermines hierarchy in the production of knowledge, and erodes the walls of the mythical ivory tower, placing the anthropologist among colleagues, consultants, partners, friends. In fact, it can remove the academic so far from the academy, that one can question why the academic is even needed to begin with. Is the anthropologist simply to become an animator, a moderator, and is this not also a “privileged” position to occupy, and to claim? If our role in producing knowledge is so problematic to begin with — if we are a contaminant — then why not just dispense with us altogether? Indeed, this is an extreme that I sometimes seem to be endorsing in some of my looser statements. And it picks on the social scientist in particular: does the poet collaborate? Should the poet share in the writing of the poem, every poem? Does the painter paint with his or her hand, or should there be a thousand hands holding the brush, or a thousand brushes perhaps moving at cross purposes? Does the chemistry researcher pause and say, “I wonder if I should ask John Q. Public for feedback on what to do next with these highly unstable elements?”

Some have and will argue that collaboration is ethical — indeed, some of the current ethical guidelines in anthropology and related disciplines stress the need, the value, for ongoing negotiation, communication, sharing one’s writing with those written about. At the extreme, however, this can give a community veto power over a document. And what if I am doing an ethnographic study of a cell of the Aryan Brotherhood, or the KKK, or Nazi skinheads? I would imagine that some would pause at my calls for collaboration in such contexts. So collaboration can seem to be the good, ethical, thing to do…but only if one’s research partners are not considered by a significant body of public opinion to be highly questionable on moral and political grounds.

So there can be nothing unambiguously “good” about collaboration.

And what if an anthropologist explicitly and consciously chooses to not collaborate, is it back to the mandate of the fictitious quote above? I can imagine that an anthropologist could come to this decision, consciously, for a number of valuable reasons:

  • I need to be independent, so I can speak with some conviction of what I think, or know, to be “the truth”
  • The value of my text is that it is not just a transcription of what other people say. After all, we live in an historical and technological setting where more and more people are in the position to say exactly what they want…on their blogs, for example. Once they have done so, is my role to simply repeat, or summarize?
  • The value of my text is that it comes from an observer who can think critically, critically not just about wider institutions of power, but also about the quest for power among subordinate groups. If I am forever beholden to the politics of some group, then how can what I say be trusted should I choose to “preach” to the “unconverted”? Is not one valuable feature of the ethnographic text that it was produced by someone who has acquired some personal and prolonged familiarity with a given social situation, to speak knowledgeably, and to provide an alternative reading, an independent one? Is not the value of such a text to be found, not in that it speaks for others who can nowadays speak for themselves very directly, but that it can provide a different reading?

And while I am trying my best to be self-critical about my own cherished assumptions of the value of collaborative anthropology, there is one more issue to be tackled, though maybe not at length right here, and that is: anthropology as not ethnography. Before proceeding, one should note that I have already sung my praises of ethnography on this blog, not that I mean for it to become dogma. I have also written some very critical, sometimes tongue in cheek commentaries about ethnography, such as this one, or that one, or the other one, and then that one. What I want to add here is that we have these two words, these two labels, these two concepts: anthropology and ethnography. I don’t believe it is wise to use them carelessly as if they were the same, as if anthropology is built on ethnography, as if all ethnography is inevitably anthropological in essence. Anthropology, for me, is way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, and maintains an ultimate concern for “everyday” persons in their “everyday” lives, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge. (Amazingly this is the very first time that I have been able to say, in one short sentence, what anthropology means to me.)

Ethnography is one means of getting to that end, and collaboration is one means of doing ethnography. But ultimately, I am thinking, anthropology can and should rise above the basic procedures, the inter-personal, the cups of shared coffee, the daily compromises, and do like the poet, the painter, and the scientist with a dream of something better — to therefore be able to speak to what life is like, could be like, and maybe should be like on this planet.

6 thoughts on “And what if I do not want to do “collaborative anthropology”?

  1. enkerli

    Quick note on ethnography!=anthropology.
    Several ethnographic disciplines which aren’t anthropological and not all of anthropology’s subdivisions are ethnographic.

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