Rethinking Collaborative Processes of Knowledge Production

Response to Koni Benson and Richa Nagar’s “Collaboration as Resistance? Reconsidering the processes, products, and possibilities of feminist oral history and ethnography”

The authors challenge researchers and activists to rethink the ways by which we can engage in collaborative processes of knowledge production. Koni Benson and Richa Nagar are critical of the dominant sociological and ethnographic research practices, which tend to privilege the authority of researchers over the voices of participants. Speaking specifically to feminist scholars and activists, the authors critically question how they can make knowledge production processes more relevant or connected to the movements of organizations and people on the “grassroots” level. In order to make these connections, however, the concepts of empowerment or sharing of power, collaboration, and reciprocity must be re-evaluated outside of the norms or conditions of bureaucratic academic institutions and “professionalized” NGO sectors.

The authors consider a need for the re-constitution of academic research protocols to be geared more towards unveiling the roots of power struggles. Many research projects that are grant-driven demand specific kinds of framework for outcomes. In Benson and Nagar’s analysis, academia tends to frame oral historical and ethnographic research within the process of data collection working to generate definitive outcomes rather than cultivate continuing discourses constituted by a plurality of perspectives. Only in rare instances, does the institutional context accept knowledges produced out of collaborative efforts. It has established strict standards for what may be considered “original” contributions to the field of “expert” academic knowledge. The researchers would then take up the responsibility of becoming “experts” on gathering, making sense of, and communicating the “data” collected from those engaged in the daily struggles against marginalization. The authors, therefore, propose that students and researchers become more concerned about the applications of their findings, and particularly, with whom they can continue the dialogue beyond the borders of elite cultural institutions. According to Benson and Nagar, there needs to be more active work that could contribute to the growth of collaboration between the feminist intellectual activists of the global north and the “non-academic people in the global south” (585).

However, the partnership between scholars or activists of the global north and movements in the global south is by no means of a simple configuration. This is clear in terms of the abundance of NGO work continuing in the global south. One of the biggest problems the authors see has to do with in what kinds of causes the NGO donors wish to invest and which kinds of stories or images they want to disseminate back to the global north. In other words, the donor-driven “professionalized” models of NGO facilitated oral history only allow for certain genres of narratives about marginalized communities in the global south (or anywhere else).  Benson and Nagar critically view the NGOs’ reliance on donors to have “deradicalized” or “depoliticized” the oral historical work of many activist inquirers. Therefore, major donors like World Bank or UNICEF expect to collect data that match their assumptions on the “basic needs” of women of the global south or domestic violence committed against women in non-Western cultural contexts (588). However, this is still an imposition of their (Western) assumptions, values, and knowledge system, as well as an invalidation or disavowal of deeper historical links to colonial violence, epistemic violence, and cultural violence. Thus, UNICEF may claim to be concerned about the need for basic infrastructures and policies for socio-economic development in the global south, however, such an institution scarcely acknowledges its own contributions to the culture of paternalism and perpetual disempowerment of marginalized communities struggling to mobilize themselves against the exploitation of their land, culture, images, and stories.

The question remains, how do activist scholars bypass or re-imagine knowledge production processes that reach beyond the professionalized and bureaucratized systems of knowledge privatization, proposed by the more economically as well as politically privileged constituencies in control of many NGOs and academic institutions? The authors emphasize reflexivity, as they encourage intellectuals and activists of the global north to recognize their privilege and invest more efforts into imagining new systems of sharing power or authority throughout every stage of the research process. Additionally, collaborative processes must not only acknowledge all participants to be producers of knowledge but also recognize the value of “non-academic products,” which have been delegitimized by the norms and conventions of the academic institution. Finally, the radical work must continue and the “politics of knowledge production” must remain unforgotten at the core of the collaboratively constituted agendas (589). The activist scholars must strive to make the connections between the collectively imagined oral historical projects and the politics of ongoing struggles against deeply rooted structural violence and oppression. For our purposes, I think that it is critical to consider cultivating processes of knowledge production and consciousness-raising in the realm outside of institutional contexts where the stakes are higher and there is a greater level of potential for self-empowerment as well as communities enacting social change for themselves.

Additional questions:

-What are the nuances of empowerment (how do we define it)? Who speaks for whom in the process of empowerment? How do we redefine this term so that it encompasses more concepts like autonomy and sovereignty, as opposed to authority and control?

-How do we recognize our privilege as mediators/communicators of oral history?

-How do we collaborate with communities to identify our collective politics or at least continue the discussions on the formation of political identity?

-What does it mean to challenge dominant knowledge production practices?

-Who do we identify to be our “audiences”?

-What could we consider to be “non-academic” findings or outcomes? (Maybe more creative manifestations of historical testimonies i.e. diaries, collaborative scriptwriting, performance rehearsals, walking/talking with participants through their daily routines, etc.)

-How do we resist “depoliticization” or “deradicalization” of the issues? In what ways do we contribute to the (grassroots) political mobilization of the people? How do we frame our historical findings as a part of larger movements to fight structural violence and injustice?

Benson, Koni, and Richa Nagar. “Collaboration as Resistance? Reconsidering the Processes, Products, and Possibilities of Feminist Oral History and Ethnography.” Gender, Place and Culture 13.5 (2006): 581-92.

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