Workshop Proceedings: Shared/Divided Research: Epistemological challenges of joint research in transregional contexts

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Actually, we have never systematically reflected how we work together in our research project till now’. With this frank statement, one of the presenters aptly summarized the aim of the workshop Shared/Divided Research: Epistemological challenges of joint research in transregional contexts (Geteilte Forschung: Epistemologische Herausforderungen gemeinsamen Forschens in transregionalen Zusammenhängen). The current research landscape funds and stipulates research groups, joint publications and interdisciplinary / international research cooperation. Doing research on transregional connections and other multi-local phenomena, like the African-Asian connections that AFRASO studies, brings about new divisions of labour in the academic sector. However, imaginaries of the research process, everyday practices and career paths in the social sciences and humanities are still largely about individual work. Until recently, the newly emerging and long established collaborative research practices have rarely been studied and theorized in their own right. Based on their own practices, the participants of the workshop reconsidered joint research in epistemological terms: What are the potentials and risks of these new epistemic practices? In other words – drawing on the double meaning of the term – is geteilte Forschung shared or divided research? The workshop, supported by the AFRASO project and organized by JAN BEEK and JULIA VERNE, brought together scholars from various disciplines such as social anthropology, geography, political science and cultural studies at the Goethe University Frankfurt (December 3-5 2015). The participants provided insights into current collaborative research practices and reflected on the theoretical implications of sharing (or keeping divided) ethnographies, systems of scientific knowledge and organizational structures.

Sharing ethnographies provides an inherent epistemological challenge, since field notes do not contain data but specific, embodied and highly contextualized ethnographic material. How, then, can researchers, during fieldwork and writing, work collaboratively and bring together such ethnographic material? In his keynote, KAI KRESSE contemplated travelling – both with interlocutors and fellow researchers – as a new mode of fieldwork. Fieldwork has changed from ‘being there’ to ‘being with’, and ‘travelling with’ could enable new reflexive circles. JAN BEEK and MIRCO GÖPFERT argued that in their joint research, telling stories about encounters in the field has enabled them to share implicit knowledge and write a comparative paper that still retains ethnographic depth. Two other presenters focussed on more systematic approaches of bringing ethnographies together. THOMAS BIERSCHENK described the diffusion of one such format, the Lehrforschung, in which a group of students does fieldwork on one topic. Developed in the 1970s by the development sociologists in Bielefeld, this model travelled to various social anthropology departments, becoming ‘anthropologized’ in the process and spawning new, comparative formats like ECRIS. GEORG KLUTE presented the research method ‚double ethnography‘, in which local and non-local researchers conduct joint fieldwork. Through observation of the ethnographic research process, such a method allows various perspectives to complement each other and thereby increases the degree of reflexivity. The discussant MARKUS VERNE pointed out the tension between the emphasis on sharing knowledge implicitly, in the course of travelling or by telling stories during cigarette breaks, with the attempt to share knowledge systematically through certain formats. Can such informal ways of sharing knowledge be organized? Do we necessarily lose the intrinsic value of ethnographic material when we try to make it exchangeable and comparable?

When doing research in transregional contexts, researchers also have to face the challenge of bringing together distinct systems of scientific knowledge. While researchers continue to struggle with the general dilemma of representing the other, working with colleagues from the countries researchers work also entails distinct problems. ANDREA SCHOLZ described digital ways of sharing knowledge between a German museum and an indigenous university in Venezuela. This cooperation, however, destabilizes inherent hierarchies of systems of scientific knowledge. When taking colleagues serious, she argues, their ethnic self-designation can no longer be analysed as ‘local identity politics’, as information from the field, but has to be discussed as equal scientific contribution. ANDREA BEHRENDS also described enduring hierarchies between European researchers and their African counterparts. Even when African researchers establish new research centres, they continue to be quoted as informants. In her own work with African doctoral students, she asserts critically, she did not succeed in giving room to alternative forms of knowledge production. JEANINE DAGYELI likewise questioned the term ‘local researcher’ in Central Asian studies. The prevalence of English and political censorship, she argues, further reinforces the divisions between scientific knowledge systems. The academic division of labour between Central Asian suppliers of knowledge and European interpreters has become so ingrained that it seems difficult to overcome in collaborative projects. With a more hopeful outlook, JUDITH SCHLEHE reflected on the tandem research teams she helped to establish, in which German and Indonesian students do joint fieldwork in both respective countries, allowing multi-relational research constellations. The multidirectional exchange of knowledge such tandems bring about do not only take place in formal work relationships but also extend to private interactions. Finally, BORIS WILKE and CIARAN WRONS-PASSMANN offered a more ambivalent picture of research cooperation between the Global North and Global South. While they acknowledged that their project aimed at an unidirectional transfer, they do not understand this as a disregard for local systems of scientific knowledge. By questioning the policy-oriented and politicized research questions of doctoral students from the Global South, they argue, they adhere to and convey the distinct knowledge practices of the social sciences. Overall, these reflections bring to the fore that we, as researchers, also transnationally convey and spread certain systems of scientific knowledge, and thereby define permissible questions, dominant languages so on and so forth. How can we accommodate the moral aim to acknowledge distinct systems of scientific knowledge with the adherence to the rationalities of our specific knowledge production? Can such differences be made productive when openly arguing about differences? Or is this emphasis on arguments and conflicts also part of our specific academic knowledge practices?

As the last section showed, researchers do not only spread certain systems of scientific knowledge, but also establish new organizational structures. A lot of research in the social sciences / humanities currently takes place in interdisciplinary and international research corporations that fundamentally change epistemic practices. FRANK SCHULZE-ENGLER introduced this topic when presenting the AFRASO project, mentioning both the potentialities and the organizational compromises huge projects like AFRASO entail. Having worked in several such projects, BEATE LÖFFLER showed how the inner workings of such projects often depend on the everyday interactions that take place during coffee breaks. While we think of such projects in the form of organigrams, they should be conceived as complex mosaics, with personal interactions as necessary – and ultimately secret – grout instead. Focusing even more on the everyday, MATTHIAS SOHR narrated his experiences in an interdisciplinary research team on Chinese medicine. Similarly to his emphasis on detours und inconsistencies in his research field, he proposes, such interdisciplinary work should also reflect the methodological potentialities of detours und inconsistencies. Considering the spatiality of research projects, the discussant MARC BOECKLER had a critical take on interdisciplinary research projects, as disciplinary knowledge and career options continue to be negotiated in the disciplines. Also as a discussant, THOMAS BIERSCHENK remarked that these huge research projects turn out so differently because knowledge transfers about management of such projects does not exist in the German research landscape. The ZMO COLLECTIVE (Zentrum Moderner Orient, represented by KATHARINA LANGE und KATRIN BROMBER) presented a detailed history of their own research organization and explained how bringing in researchers from various research traditions changed the forms of collaboration. Moreover, they state, we should critically engage the political structures that shape our collaborative research. Other contributors focussed on the politics of transregional research. Reflecting her own collaborative work, ANGELA LAST called for a critical appraisal of the structures that the internationalization of research brings about. As postcolonial and feminist activists, researchers should experiment with alternative modes of transregional collaboration and produce emancipatory knowledge. RIRHANDU MAGEZA-BARTHEL and MIRJAM TUTZER reflected their own position in a transregional division of labor in research, which separated the world in producers and recipients of knowledge. To counter this, they sketch a political and normative scholarly practice and solidarity. JOHN NJENGA KARUGIA reflected on his own research practice: Born in Kenya, having studied in Germany, he now does research in both Africa and Asia in collaboration with two German professors with different research objectives. While he had to struggle to be recognized as an equal contributor in earlier projects, he now perceives both his transregional and transdisciplinary positionality as fruitful.

The various contributions reveal once more that, when studying the organizational structures they work in, researchers are obviously entangled with and positioned in these structures. However, should we analyse interdisciplinary and international research projects in work-related, managerial or political terms? And how should we use the experimental space that the newly established forms of collaborations open up? For instance, do workshop proceedings – such as this document – necessarily need to emphasize single presenters though the results emerged out of collective sharing of ideas?

In representing the proceedings of the workshop, this text tried to convey both the rich presentations, the ongoing discussions and open questions. However, creating a single narrative with three major topics is only one possible take on what was going on. Angela Last also wrote a blog post, with a slightly different emphasis and understanding of the workshop []. It is this crossing of perspectives and reflexivity that joint research can bring about. In the case of our workshop, this process is ongoing. Ultimately aiming for a publication, we have started an experimental online platform to facilitate further discussions and to enable collaborative writing experiments.



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