This brief methodological statement is meant to serve as a port of entry for discussion, elaboration, debate and revision, with the participation of all those interested in the topic. Insisting on this plural and open character of the methodology is crucial, given the nature of this kind of research—reflexive, collaborative, and directly influenced by the socio-political conditions of the research setting. Even the term used to describe this kind of research must remain preliminary and plural. Many such terms have been proposed—engaged, activist, public, collaborative, action, etc.—at times with explicit efforts to draw distinctions, often simply as an expression of preference. We opt for the term “collaborative” here, not as an attempt to defend ground or edge others out, but simply in an effort to stand somewhere in particular as the discussion continues.
The Otros Saberes Initiative has put “collaborative research” into practice in diverse ways, but always in keeping with a few basic principles. First and foremost, this mode of research involves collaboration between intellectuals based primarily in the academy (or related institutions devoted primarily to research), on the one hand, and intellectuals located primarily in civil society, on the other. The details of the collaboration that results will vary widely, but generally with another basic commonality: collaboration begins in the phase when the research topic and objectives are being conceived, and continues on through completion; this collaboration, in turn, transforms each distinct facet of the research process.
The phrase “civil society-based intellectuals” is a place holder, an imprecise descriptor for a whole range of differently positioned individuals who might collaborate in a given research project. The key principle to start with here is the need to break the monopoly of academy-based intellectuals over the processes of knowledge production that we call “research,” a monopoly reinforced by idea that only those with certain kinds of expert training and credentials are properly prepared to participate. The contrary premise, fundamental to Otros Saberes, posits that most research endeavors stand to benefit enormously from the participation of a wide range of differently positioned individuals and groups, who bring their own insights, training and expertise—often embedded in their own distinctive epistemologies—to bear on the problem at hand. Whether the people in question are NGO professionals, grassroots activists, community-based intellectuals, or self-schooled experts, they are potentially valuable partners precisely because they bring perspective and experience to the work that are radically different from that of most academy-based intellectuals.
When this collaboration acquires central importance in the design and implementation of the research endeavor, the process changes fundamentally. In part this occurs due simply to the diversity of perspectives, but more importantly, because the collaboration is intended to bring the interests and aspirations of the civil society based partners to the fore. Ideally, these interests and aspirations will congeal around a sharply defined problem that the group in question would like to explore, understand and perhaps resolve, through their own participation in the research process. It is not necessary or expected that the academy-based researchers will coincide completely with their civil society based counterparts in the delineation of this research agenda; instead, the collaboration requires sufficient overlap for both sets of partners to see the value of working together. This approach—seeing overlap without full convergence—allows ample space, for example, for academy-based intellectuals to pursue facets of the research problem that their civil society-based counterparts find irrelevant or uninteresting, and visa versa. An insistence on that overlap, however, provides a guarantee that the research will be centered on a problem that the civil society-based collective—whether an organized group in struggle, or a group held together by more loosely aligned affinities—sees as important to engage.
This problem-solving orientation is crucial to the research method for a number of reasons. First, because it provides a measure of guarantee that the “research subjects” will have an active interest in the research, which in turn will motivate them to participate. Unless academy-based researchers resort to compensation in return for information, or find other creative means of providing psychic benefits, it is very difficult to sustain the participation of the people on whom the research depends (for interviews, data, or even participant observation), who generally have better things to do, and who have very good reason to be suspicious that they will not benefit at all from the results. In this collaborative research design, participants can be motivated at least by the intention that the problem-solving will serve broader purposes. Second, this practical dimension of the process opens the possibility of a distinct means to validate the research results, parallel to the validation routines common to academia. If the civil society-based participants, and others in their milieu, find the research results to be useless or irrelevant, then any claim for validity must at least take this damning judgment seriously into account; and conversely, if they endorse the findings with enthusiasm, their support should speak volumes. The fact that so much academic research, especially in the social sciences, is so rarely put to this test of practice but still presented as unquestionably rigorous and valuable is, from this collaborative perspective, extremely hard to justify.
The third benefit of this problem-solving orientation is the most important, but the hardest to specify in general terms. A principal motivation for doing collaborative research, from the outset, is its potential positive contribution to processes of change toward greater social equity and justice. But while the hope and assumption is that these contributions will result, there certainly can be no guarantees; the validity of and rationale for the method cannot rest on the actual achievement—often involving lofty long-term goals; it must rest primarily on a positive collective sense that the research results inform thinking and action toward those ends. More concrete criteria of impact, though at times useful, can often stifle complex and expansive analysis of the problem at hand. Another complexity in this “social change” rationale for collaborative research is the widely varying and inherently politicized evaluations of the objective itself: which forms social change are valuable and worth working for, and which are spurious or even counter-productive? It is crucial that collaborative research methods include explicit, critical reflection on this question—how does the collaborative research contribute to social justice?—without claiming the authority to pre-judge the validity of one particular notion of social justice versus another. A more valid basis for judgment, in fact, would be the quality and content of the reflexivity in the answer: a full rendering of how the collaboration was formed, how they arrived at the key research questions, how their own priorities for “social justice oriented research” were proposed, debated and decided upon. In this sense, the research process itself takes on great importance as “research product”—an insight the feminist approaches to collaborative research have been especially insistent in pointing out.
This point on reflexivity brings up a final crucial feature of collaborative research methods, namely, the need for constant, sustained reflection on the contradictions inherent to the entire endeavor. At the highest level of generalization, collaboration is meant to “decolonize” research relations, by challenging the hierarchies built into the very infrastructure of the social sciences since their 19th century inception. Yet strong remnants of these hierarchies inevitably persist, starting with the very formulation, “collaboration between academy- and civil society-based intellectuals.” Branded as “Otros Saberes,” the aspiration still far from realization is that dialogue proceed among “saberes multiples.” This broader contradiction reverberates in each facet of the everyday research relations that the Otros Saberes initiative seeks to forge: in the formulation of the research topic, routines of data collection, interpretation of the findings, and interpretation of the results, we seek to replace hierarchy with horizontal dialogue, fully aware that inequities inevitably seep back in and must be acknowledge as such. Rather than despair over this unfinished business, the mandate of collaborative research is to subject the contradictions themselves to sustained critical reflection. This reflection, in the last analysis, is perhaps the greatest strength of collaborative research methods, in comparison with their conventional social science counterparts. “They” ignore or elude the contradictions that “we” engage.
What follows is a very preliminary selection of 50 key citations on collaborative research methods. More than even a gesture toward a comprehensive list, it should be read as an invitation to expand and modify, in the spirit of crowd-sourcing or Wikipedia. After reading the list, please propose additional citations by entering the portal-link below. A webmaster will simply determine that the suggested additional citation meets the basic criterion—makes a contribution to the dialogue on collaborative research methods—and it will be included. Works that critique these methods (or any of the ideas presented in the preceding text) are welcome.