Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation
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Beyond Participant Observation:
Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation

The past decade has witnessed a growing interest in collaborative ethnographic methods in North America. Most recently, the Latin American Studies Association introduced a new initiative, Other Americas/ Otros Saberes, aimed at funding collaborative research between academics and Latin American indigenous or Afrodescendant organizations.1 A series of collaborative projects with indigenous and African American communities have demonstrated that collaboration is not only a moral choice for progressive ethnographers but a choice that makes for good ethnography (Field 2008; Lassiter et al. 2004; Ridington and Hastings 1997). The growing appeal of collaborative research has also been reflected in the pages of major anthropological journals (Castañeda 2006; Field 1999a; Lassiter 2005b); it is mirrored by a call for a "public anthropology" attentive to pressing public issues and written in a language accessible to an educated general public, and by a turn toward a politically engaged "activist anthropology" (Hale 2007, 104).2

Collaborative ethnography has been defined as

an approach to ethnography that deliberately and explicitly emphasizes collaboration at every point in the ethnographic process, without veiling it—from project conceptualization, to fieldwork, and, especially, through the writing process. Collaborative ethnography invites commentary from our consultants and seeks to make that commentary overtly part of the ethnographic text as it develops. In turn, this negotiation is reintegrated back into the fieldwork process itself.

(Lassiter 2005a, 16) [End Page 1]

Such an endeavor is not new to anthropology, nor is it confined to the North American anthropological arena: it can be traced back to Boas and his associates (Berman 1998), and it has been a mainstay of African American activist anthropology (Gwaltney [1980] 1993). It is also practiced widely by Latin American anthropologists working with social movements (Bonilla et al. 1972; Vasco Uribe 2002) and nongovernmental organizations (Riaño-Alcalá 2006). The products of collaborative ethnography include coauthored pieces (Field 2008; Fletcher and La Flesche [1911] 1992; Ridington and Hastings 1997; Vasco Uribe, Dagua Hurtado, and Aranda 1993), edited volumes in which anthropologists and local researchers present their findings (Lassiter et al. 2004), publications for consumption by local communities (Lobo 2002; Reynolds and Cousins 1993), and single-authored books that acknowledge the collaborative context in which they were produced (Field 1999b; Lassiter 1998; Lawless 1993; Rappaport 2005a; Urton 1997).

The bulk of the English-language literature on collaboration focuses on the substantive content that results from this brand of research, ignoring the specificity of its methodology: how researchers come to learn through collaboration. As I hope to illustrate, the local agendas that community researchers bring to the collaborative endeavor are key spaces in which we can begin to discern the potential contributions of collaboration. It is precisely the possibility of constructing alternative research agendas outside of the academic orbit and, correspondingly, pursuing alternative forms of analysis, which make collaborative ethnography different from traditional participant observation or, for that matter, from methodologies in which subjects participate as research assistants but have little control over the research. What I wish to accomplish in this article is to focus on collaboration as a space for the coproduction of theory, which is, I will contend, a crucial venue in which knowledge is created through collaboration. My aim is to discover why such an approach is not only morally or ethically necessary—an argument that has become well represented in recent public anthropology literature (Scheper-Hughes 1995)—but, more importantly, to what extent it bears potential for nourishing and revitalizing anthropological thought (Hale 2007). I also hope to turn the attention of North American readers to the particular brand of collaborative research that has been going on for years in Latin America, and in Colombia, particularly. Using methodologies that [End Page 2] merge research with activism, anthropological collaborations in Colombia function as spaces in which co-theorization takes place, nourishing both the political objectives of community researchers and the academic analyses of scholars. Refocusing our sights outside of the North American orbit will help us build new intellectual genealogies that can potentially nourish our goal of promoting collaborative anthropology.

Colombian Anthropology and Social Engagement

Following the lead of my Colombian colleagues, who are searching for an...


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