Is the “lone researcher” a myth?

Elitists, isolated in their ivory towers, serving out life terms in self-imposed exile. It’s a great image, if you are writing a comedic novel, or perhaps aiming to produce a take on Great Expectations applied to an academic setting, or likewise some rendition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. One can indeed think of how many of these great novels were produced in solitary conditions, but note, by individuals with a great deal of “noise” in their heads, a great many voices struggling to be heard, in conversation or argument with one another, the author caught somewhere in between the (not so) fictional, allegedly “imaginary” voices.

The truly solitary researcher, a prisoner of his own self, would in fact have no sense of Self to start with (given the absence of an Other), and could have nothing to research or theorize, let alone fancy him or herself as a researcher or theorist. Real solitude would come from being born and raised in a complete vacuum, that thing we are told nature abhors (and indeed populates with animals and plants, so that solitude in a natural setting is still rendered impossible). And yet critics of the ivory tower would have us believe that this is exactly the kind of social vacuum in which academics exist, there among hundreds of students in their classes, students in their offices, constantly knocking elbows with colleagues, in a crowd waiting to get a spot on the bus, lined up in busy cafes, mulling over the political and economic changes that are reflected within the university, incredible solitude.

I have to apologize for the times I looked critically at colleagues deep in their endless re-readings of Marx, bouncing one theoretical text off of another, mixing and matching and contrasting Derrida and Spivak, and considered the whole enterprise to be a lonely, elitist, divorced-from-reality, kind of activity. “Get out there and do some ethnography why dontcha!” It’s what gives us anthropologists a sense of self when we are forced to share a department with theoretical sociologists. It’s also fundamentally wrong.

The lone researcher is a social and intellectual impossibility, and all academic work is collaborative. The one who aims to see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, forcing Bourdieu to “speak” with Foucault, engages in a meeting of minds, in a dialogue. It’s just not overtly noisy. But it’s still a marketplace, internally noisy, full of voices. And those voices come after a lengthy education, along with socialization, since birth. All writing that results is the product of the weaving of a web of ideas derived from, inspired by, others. No wonder then that notions of collaboration have come into play when revisiting or revising our current notions of what constitutes plagiarism (as discussed here) — it’s a recognition of the fact that all research and writing is collaborative.

So when we proclaim the need for a collaborative anthropology, which assumes a non- or less than or inadequately collaborative past, going as far as producing a journal devoted to collaborative anthropologies, or handbook on collaborative ethnography, what is it that we really think we are doing and achieving, and what are the kinds of values embedded in the projects that need to be made explicit? I hope to cover more of this material in the future, as with everything else on this blog. For now, here are some links of possible interest to readers, which include some full-text items, in no particular order:

Lassiter, Luke Eric. (2005). Collaborative ethnography and public anthropology. Current Anthropology 46 (1): 83-106 ► open access pdf (thank you Luke)

Lassiter, Luke Eric. 2005. The Chicago guide to collaborative ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ► excerpt in html here Collaborative Ethnography: Luke Eric Lassiter Receives Margaret Mead Anthropology Award. 2005, October 29.

Kleinknecht, Steven. (2006). Review of Luke Eric Lassiter, The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. Canadian Journal of Sociology Online. ► open access pdf (thank you CJS)

Savage Minds: Collaborating with Corporations? (John McCreery). 2006, October 8.

Walsh, Julianne and Ty Kawika Tengan. (n.d.). Public positions: Engaging anthropologists. Public Anthropology: The Graduate Journal. ► open access html (thank you PA)

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