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  • Rethinking the Meaning of Research in Collaborative Relationships
  • Joanne Rappaport (bio)

At a seminar on collaborative research held in Washington in the spring of 2012, María Patricia Pérez Moreno, a Tseltal anthropologist and educator from Mexico, called attention to a fact that many academics have ignored: from a community standpoint, collaborative research is dialogue and reciprocity, not the systematic collection of information. She admonished us by reminding us that "they call it collaborative research, but it's already there." Pérez Moreno is a university-trained scholar with a graduate degree in anthropology from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Quito and a published book (Pérez Moreno 2014), so she is well versed in ethnographic methodologies and is fully capable of collecting ethnographic and linguistic information and analyzing it in the service of an academic argument. Nonetheless, her statement at the seminar suggests that for her collaboration is more a space of communal and reciprocal reflection, rather than a process of jointly collecting data.

A few years earlier I signed on as an "investigadora solidaria," a "researcher in solidarity," with the Otros Saberes initiative, a two-year project sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association, in which six collaborative teams made up of academics and Latin American indigenous or Afro-descendant community researchers embarked on innovative projects resulting in a bilingual publication (Hale and Stephen 2013).1 Here again I sensed that it was all "already there," that much of what these teams were up to was not research in the academic sense of the word, but a series of communal scenarios in which members of these organizations reflected on their own political process, based on knowledge they already [End Page 1] had. By framing this process as research they sought to engage in a dialogue between their practice of collective evaluation and the more formal procedures of data collection of their academic counterparts.

Most recently I have been working with the personal archives of Orlando Fals Borda, the Colombian sociologist whose work with peasant organizations on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the early 1970s laid the basis for what we know today as participatory action research.2 Fals ultimately composed a four-volume history, Historia doble de la Costa or Double History of the Coast (Fals Borda 1979a; 1981; 1984; 1986), which brought together the results of his research, but his more immediate goal was to make this history available to the peasant movement through a variety of media, including comic books and filmstrips. His field notes, like those of so many of us, tend to obscure the nitty-gritty of what happened during his stay of several years in Córdoba province, where he did his work. While I found numerous descriptions of cultural practices and recountings of historical events—which were sometimes first stabs at literary construction—as well as a voluminous set of interview transcripts, there was precious little about Fals's methodology: almost no notes of the countless meetings at which he and his collaborators debated their methodology, nor any record of the myriad assemblies at which aged peasant leaders recounted their historical experience or the workshops at which drafts of popular history pamphlets were evaluated.

I had to read between the lines and consult the few survivors of the research team to make sense of how this project was participatory. Fals's papers showed me only the contrary: that he and his associates believed the peasants were not sufficiently schooled to engage in scientific research (Rappaport 2017). It was only in the past three years that I realized I was asking the wrong questions of the documentation and of my interlocutors. I had assumed that participatory research involved the same sorts of methods as conventional academic research, when in fact participatory and collaborative methodologies conceive of research in an entirely different way. This article develops some of my ruminations on that subject.

What Is Collaboration?

The founder of Collaborative Anthropologies, Eric Lassiter, defines the collaborative enterprise in the following words: "an approach to ethnography that deliberately and explicitly emphasizes collaboration at [End Page 2] every point in the ethnographic process, without veiling it—from project conceptualization, to...


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