Day of Anthropology workshop: Making anthropology public – in collaboration

In this blog the Dutch Anthropological Association shares the findings of the ethnographic experiment that took place during the Dag van de Antropologie on May 19 (2017) in which we looked for ways of ‘making anthropology public – in collaboration’. Our aim was to research how to do so, and to provide the audience with some ideas on how to put collaborative public anthropology into practice. In what follows we share our main findings, after having commented briefly on our methodology.  We will close the article with some concluding remarks.


Methodology

The methodology for this workshop was designed during two meetings in Utrecht, and was a follow-up on different activities that we had organized before (e.g. a workshop on the usefulness and necessity of public anthropology in 2015). The workshop should be multi-layered, and cover the different stages of research. We would think and practice collaborative ethnography at the same time; the workshop would in itself be a form of collaborative ethnography. Findings would be disseminated in ‘a public way’. The workshop would start off with four pitches, in which four scholars would share their ideas on the following questions: 1) How did you (try to) make your research public, and how did you do this in collaboration? 2)  How did the different ways in which you did this relate to the different phases of research (design, practice, dissemination) 3) What were the main (ethical) challenges that you found and how did you overcome them? After the pitches, we would divide the audience in three break-out groups and discuss the possible collaborative and public character in the different stages of research.

Findings

The pitches gave a good impression of the different ways that anthropologists can do anthropology in a collaborative way and make it public, but also the myriad of challenges that we might face in doing so. The work of Michiel (Köhne) shows how he and his co-researcher (Elisabet Rasch) co-design their research with  their research participants and try to find ways to make their findings accessible and usable to the people central to the research, by way of feedback presentations and alternative, more popular ways of written dissemination. Nick Middeldorp shared how he supported a community, where he did research on activism against the construction of the Nicaragua canal, to portray itself in the way it wanted to in a documentary about the community, raising questions about whose ‘truth’ one should want to be represented. Yvon van der Pijl  shared her experiences on sharing and creating knowledge through teaching within and with a large for-profit funeral corporation and various professionals working in the Dutch death care industry. Guiselle Starink-Martha showed how the making of podcasts with research participants might disseminate knowledge on complex issues such as feelings of nationness and belonging from a Dutch Caribbean perspective.

After the pitches, the group was divided in three break-out groups, following the traditional stages of research: design, fieldwork, dissemination.

The break-out group that discussed the design phase of research was guided by the following questions: ‘With whom and how do you define the problem and questions?’, ‘How do you decide on collaborative research methodology?’ and ‘At what point does the collaboration become public?’. The discussion started off with a contemplation on how to decide on the topic to be researched. Ideally, this would happen in a horizontal way with partners who bring in what is relevant from their perspective and experience. However, participants shared several frictions that could accompany such collaborative beginnings. Practical and institutional obstacles were mentioned, for instance one participant commented that we often start with a fixed research proposal”. But also more profound issues that concern our research freedom were discussed. Would we negotiate our freedom to critique, or downplay complexity for the sake of our partners? One participant shared her concern about the credibility of research, in the case of collaborative researchers who become led by the fear to upset partners. While these issues were not limited to the stage of collaborative research designs, but rather form part of the entire collaborative research process, the break-out group also discussed particular options to engage others in the research design. For instance, by maintaining a website to present the research questions, doubts and updates about the research collaboration. In fact, the general idea of anthropologists working alone became challenged in the group. The idea of the lone anthropologist belonged to the past and collaborations should become the norm, the participants agreed. Someone suggested to promote the participation of anthropologists in interdisciplinary research projects, in that way, our work would become more accessible to different academic fields and also to the public. This would make anthropology as a discipline more visible and relevant, facilitated by its collaborations.

The break-out group on the practice of producing, negotiating and constructing ‘data’ was led by questions such as: ‘Who plays which role in the actual practice of conducting research, and how and by whom is decided on this?’ and ‘How do research findings become public during research, how is decided on this, and what are the pitfalls?’. During a heated discussion it appeared that ethics, in particular related to control, power relations, dependency, and vulnerability, is a core challenge in collaborative research that aims at sharing findings and knowledge with a broader public outside academia. Participants shared examples of ‘simplification’ and ‘essentializing’ of findings and knowledge in collaborative projects and questioned whether and how data and information should/could be controlled. It was concluded that unexpected and/or unwanted side-effects of the dissemination of information and findings during the research process are part of collaboration and that participating researchers should not have the intention of controlling outcomes: ‘What’s out there, is out there…’. Or, as one of the group participants concluded: ‘There is no control! That’s an illusion.’ Yet, ‘unregulated data sharing’ might harm others, e.g. when findings are represented in a simplified, stigmatizing way. Furthermore, it was mentioned that also researchers themselves could be ‘harmed’ when e.g. sensitive findings are brought ‘into the open’. This might mess up already existing relations in the field of research, hinder access to important research participants or institutions, and ultimately might frustrate the academic career of the researcher involved. These and many other issues showed that making anthropology public in and through collaboration is a very sensitive practice that requires a good deal of navigating between different interests and positions involved. Within this “minefield”, to put it in the words of one of the participants, transparency is essential, since collaboration nor making findings public should be an end in itself, but a deliberate means in producing and sharing knowledge and meaning.

In the dissemination-break-out group we worked with questions such as ‘How do you share findings in a collaborative way?’, ‘How do you make a collaborative public, and how do you do that together?’ and ‘How do you collectively construct findings and thus decide upon the main research results (writing/video or other methods) and how do you make these public in a collaborative way?’. Several ideas were mentioned to make anthropology more accessible to the public: vlogs, podcasts, blogs, documentaries, teaching/giving lectures on high schools and primary schools. There was still a lot of need for discussing the advantages and disadvantages of actually making anthropology public: who is the public, actually? Do we want to simplify our findings, or do we want to bring nuance to simplified debates? The experimental forms in which findings can be made public might be (technologically) difficult to accomplish, and also the possibilities of finding funding for such projects might be difficult. In the end, it was concluded, making anthropology public in collaboration would ideally be a process of co-creation, through which traditional power relations between ‘the anthropologist’ and ‘the researched’ can transformed and contested.

Conclusion

Although the main conclusion probably is that there is still so much to talk about, some general points can be taken from the discussions  of the workshop. First, considering the packed room and the heated discussions: there is not only a lot to be discussed, collaborative and public anthropology is also something that many anthropologists are interested in and actually want to talk about. Second, it is difficult to maintain the distinction between research design, fieldwork and dissemination of findings in collaborative research. Although anthropological research is always non-lineair, this seems to be even more the case when it comes to its public and collaborative variants. Third, collaboration is a process of co-constructing and co-creating knowledge in which both researchers and research participants navigate multiple tensions and interests, which might not always be easy.

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