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  • Collaborative Anthropology as Twenty-first-Century Ethical Anthropology
  • Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (bio)

Since 1991 I have argued that collaborative research—that is, research that involves research participants/collaborators as partners in the research process—is "ethically conscious" research (see Fluehr-Lobban 1991, 2003). Not only is collaborative research ethical, and thus morally preferable to historical models of research, but it is better research because its methodology emphasizes multiple, polyphonic perspectives, which will leave a richer heritage of ethnography to subsequent generations of ethically conscious researchers.

Collaborative research involves the people who are studied in an active way, as individuals or groups having vested interests in the project through their participation in the research design, execution, publication, and outcomes potentially related to community or individual improvement of well-being. Collaborative studies can potentially inform or affect social policy. Often, jointly directed and jointly authored projects replace the older, more hierarchical model of research planned, executed, and published by the anthropologist alone. Community or individual collaboration in research—with partnership incorporated in every phase of the research—becomes a condition for its success, not simply a fortuitous by-product of work with communities. This newer model of research presumes, for the most part, a literate, socially conscious set of partners who not only participate in research but read and critique drafts of publishable results. However, literacy among research participants is not essential to its viability or success, as openness and mutual exchange of research ideas and outcomes can be communicated without the ability to read.

Collaborative research stands in dramatic contrast with most historical [End Page 175] models of Boasian anthropology—especially those with emphasis on "informants," "ethnographic subjects," and a central objective of data collection. It also contrasts sharply with European social anthropology methods with their linkages to colonialism and latter-day postmodernism. Uniquely, the subfields of applied anthropology in the United States and development anthropology in Europe have recognized and embraced the value of collaboration in research, as it is necessarily attached to applications of anthropology to institutions and agencies—governmental and nongovernmental—whose mission is to promote the well-being of humans. It is this mission of research designed to promote human well-being that has led critics to view collaborative research as advocacy, confusing anthropology with social work (Gross and Plattner 2002). Others view collaborative research through the lens of the same history of anthropological research and would argue that the approach reflects an increasing decolonization of the discipline.

Neglected by the Euro-American dominance of the discipline and profession of anthropology are the numerous examples of practice by indigenous anthropologists, many trained in the Euro-American "classical" tradition but who are active as collaborative anthropologists in environments where, of necessity, researcher and researched are co-citizens with a shared heritage and common futures. Anthropological practitioners approach research with a greater emphasis on national priorities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where practical outcomes favoring improvement of societal well-being replace older colonial and neocolonial models. Examples of collaborative projects reflect national interests, such as the status and rights of native peoples to land and resources; conflict resolution and the condition of internal displacement of peoples; and public health, family planning, and the well-being of women and children. For example, Ahfad University for Women in Sudan has mobilized an interdisciplinary research group of social scientists, with key roles played by local anthropologists, who design and carry out research focused on women as peace-builders, to ultimately assist with the development of policy initiatives. This research is grounded in models of feminist, collaborative research and is part of a long-term project titled Building Peace through Diversity Series. Their recent projects have been in conflict-ridden regions of South Sudan and Darfur. The funding of such projects may be external—in this case, Oxfam, the [End Page 176] Netherlands—but the research and publications outcomes are decidedly local (Badri, Jamal, and Martin 2005). Indigenous anthropologists are also employed providing vital cultural and linguistic links between humanitarian aid organizations and vulnerable local communities.

In the twenty-first-century, postcolonial, "emerging markets" global context, collaboration is the key to the sustainability of anthropological fieldwork and research, and perhaps for anthropology...


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