[Politics] practices of collaboration Photo credits: E. Laudjeng (2020)

[Politics] practices of collaboration

How can anthropologists further problematize hierarchies of knowledge production that are haunting the discipline? Based on her PhD trajectory and research on environment and (im)mobilities in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Daniela Paredes Grijalva argues for advancing practices of collaboration.

A child of colonialism

Anthropology has been dubbed the child of colonialism and rightly so. Practices of stealing, of extracting, of taking both material and immaterial things have been widely condemned. The assumption that trained male anthropologists from the North are the only ones that can produce scientific knowledge on peoples of the Global South has also been contested. Nevertheless, we continue to see colonial continuities in our minds and systems. As Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, one of several decolonial thinkers, has argued, the coloniality of power continues to shape structures and relations in the post-colonial world.

In the past decades, significant debates around responsibility and ethics have taken place in anthropology, debates that we can consider a turning point for the discipline. It is, for example, now probably very uncommon to embark on a research project without addressing ethics and some degree of reflexivity. At present, we continue to discuss what it means to work ethically in the discipline. One key tenet of these discussions is questioning hierarchies of knowledge and knowledge production. We may hold stakeholder meetings, organize consultations or validation sessions at field sites, and commit to do no harm. Some countries, like Indonesia, require that foreign researchers establish clear collaboration agreements with local partners. But hit-and-run research is far from being a thing of the past. Have we as a discipline come of age? This is perhaps a question we may need to ask ourselves time and time again.

Coming of age // A win-win situation?

In my journey as a PhD candidate I explore avenues for collaboration with the people I do fieldwork with and who make this research project on the relations between environment and (im)mobilities in Sulawesi, Indonesia, possible. When starting up fieldwork and getting to talk to community organizers that were engaged in the disaster response or sustainability work, I found that, first of all, it is crucial that we get to know each other, our strengths, aspirations and trajectories. For example, I began by asking questions like “How can I be of service to you or the community?” In the conversation that follows such a question, we discuss what the person or collective I am talking to wishes for, what is meaningful and what we can actually do together to benefit more than one person. This is a process of exploration, negotiation and creativity. As I work with different community organizers in Sulawesi we foster a conversation on how disaster, gender and spatial planning are related. With one particular person this was literally a conversation we put into text with different voices and ideas. We published this work “On disasters and disaster knowledges” in English in an Austrian based feminist magazine both in print and online. We had been asking questions like what is knowledge and who gets to call it that? We argue that indigenous women, local artists and community organizers have much to say in the field of disasters, the environment and climate change. This is knowledge too and it should be taken as seriously as technical and academic knowledge!

Much of the data we collect as ethnographers comes to us in the shape of stories. Responding to a call for creative inputs on how the climate crisis affects different peoples and knowledges, a research partner and I ventured off to the field of co-creating a story about the topics we had been discussing. This was a work of much threading and weaving text, words and ideas through WhatsApp messages; deleting and adding written words in a shared document. “What did you mean here?” “Try this word, it sounds better.” It meant sending and receiving voice messages patched over different time zones and varying internet connectivity (or the lack thereof). With each edit we shaped our story and learned more about each other. The space of a student-led magazine gave us the freedom to co-author and experiment with the entanglements of migration, climate change, plants and their symbolic power in a post-colonial modern state in a story-like genre, having the sweet potatoes (ubi) and rice fields as the main characters.

Not only in the field

But collaboration doesn’t necessarily need to wait for fieldwork. It can happen as early on as your first semester at university. My colleague Rachael Diniega and I were fortunate enough to meet early on during our programs at a “Welcome PhDs” event. We connected, despite not being in the same discipline or departments. From then on, we shared our interests, our doubts, the cool articles we found, the not so cool ones too. We collaborated in the day-to-day of being a PhD researcher at our institution sharing what we knew and sharing what we didn’t. Nobody knew a pandemic and a series of lockdowns were coming our way, but we faced them together and went on the mission of jointly reaching out to people in our field. We saw our overlapping interests as a strength to collaborate and not to compete. Sharing our proposals, our approaches and our questions we went on to write about how to think of environmental migration with a mobilities and translocality lens. We continued to share information on events, publications, and our research journeys. Responding to the ever-present framing of migrants as a security threat to Europe or the U.S. we went on to write about how people affected by climate change are “Technically not a climate refugee”. I cannot imagine this path, especially during a pandemic, without the intellectual and mental health support of colleagues, fellow students, or friends in and out of “the field”.

Certainly, each project will have its own particularities, limitations and opportunities. Anthropologists are rarely working in a vacuum. Collaboration in and outside the field, in and across disciplines, with and beyond institutions is actually much of what we do. The question is: do we credit it and how? One way, but surely not the only one, could be co-authorship. More often than not collaborations allow us to recognize our interconnections, to keep on moving in ways that de-centre hegemonic narratives and voices, to keep on decolonizing by telling our own stories in plurivocality.


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