Abstract art image. Image courtesy Mitchfeatherston and wikicommons

Three Challenges for Anthropology

The contemporary scholarly ambitions of anthropology have become more explicit about the need for an integrated approach to its methods and goals. This means we need a greater coherence between anthropology’s methodological protocols and tools, and the concrete work with participants in different contexts. In this sense, collaborative research (CR), participatory and reciprocal ethnography, as well as applied and public anthropology have made efforts to acknowledge the impact of the research process on its differently positioned agents (respective statuses and know-hows, cultural and linguistic references, subjectivities). I explore these issues of the construction of relevant anthropological knowledge and practices, in the context of migration studies.

Abstract art image. Image courtesy Mitchfeatherston and wikicommons

Abstract art image. Image courtesy Mitchfeatherston and wikicommons

This essay reflects on the coherence between anthropology’s abstract goal of understanding human experience and our concrete experiences of collaboration with participants in the fieldwork encounter. To identify some of the important challenges of conducting collaborative research with participants, we discuss an ongoing research project with immigrants in Coimbra, Portugal (“The study of migrations and the biographical approach: building a collaborative framework in the Portuguese context”).

Drawing from the project’s biographical workshops with immigrant collaborators, and audio visual supports produced by all the participants (the project’s video, documentary film, and hypermedia), we analyze three main issues faced by CR: asymmetry (different social groups in the same situation or project); reciprocities among the different participants (give and takes of immigrants and researchers); and co-authorship.

We show that CR remains a theoretical, practical and civic challenge. However we have discovered how collaboration in a structurally unequal world contributes to shared benefit for all parties involved: researchers, immigrants, public institutions, common sense and normative discourses on immigrants and immigration (representations, communication, inter knowledge).

The essay aims to bring insights into collaboration with research participants, highlighting the need for cogenerative inquiry (Greenwood and Levin 2003) that would make sense to everyone involved in the research.

Collaboration as Active Participation in Social Change

How can collaborative research deal with the questions of equity, and co-authorship in a field where researchers and participants start from distinctive social and cultural locations? Can there be full collaboration without shared understanding among all participants as to what collaboration means?

To answer these questions we visit the history of traditions defining collaborative research, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the concrete experience of an ongoing project with immigrants in Portugal.

Starting with the concept: the term “collaborative research” designates processes of investigation that make use of methodologies which actively involve communities and/or policy-makers. Collaborative research with participants, according to the University of California Center for Collaborative Research, necessarily implies three central elements: (1) oriented to equity, (2) organized in collaborative formats, (3) works with communities.

This definition raises several questions which need to be addressed, starting with the meaning of “collaboration” and “community” in the context of academic research. But before addressing those, we need to acknowledge the origins of this type of research in Action-Research (AR).

Kurt Lewin coined this term in 1940. In a seminal article entitled “Action Research and Minority Problems” (1946), Lewin describes Action Research as a transformative research which implies a multiple chains of consequences between plan, action and discovery. Even though it has not been well seen within the social sciences, Actin Research has gained recognition in academia as a way of (re)constructing relationships between universities and society. It is the comprehensive nature of AR that brought this recognition about as it engages all involved parties throughout the (non-linear) reflexive processes of knowledge production, formulating questions, shaping research techniques, interpretation, and results. In this sense, collaboration should go beyond a community of practice to constitute itself as an effective learning experience for both minorities and majorities to be taken to other contexts after the research field. Lewin had already pointed at this challenge by stating that “the problem of minorities is also the problem of majorities: the problem of the black is the problem of the white, as the problem of the Jew is the problem of the non-Jew” (Lewin, 1946: 44). A lesson still to be learned.

Building a Collaborative Framework with Immigrants in the Portuguese Context

Our research project was approved and funded by the Portuguese National Science Foundation in 2011. The international panel of expert anthropologists considered the project to be an innovative and original one. We based our proposal on the assumption that any research project towards social transformation borders on the utopia. Yet we face this border as a practical exercise in situated negotiation between different knowledge systems, common sense, and beliefs or ideologies brought about by researchers and participants. Drawing on the anthropology of experience we value both the migrant narratives and the way they are expressed, registered, and revealed through the use of audiovisual and hypermedia supports.

Immigrants in the city of Coimbra were contacted through local and regional associations, the Municipality, the university, the local center for immigration, and churches. We contacted over a hundred people and twenty of them volunteered. They come from eleven countries such as Angola, Australia, Brazil, Cape Verde, China, Guine-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, San Tome, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, and belong to distinct social groups in terms of gender, age, literacy rate, and occupation. The collaborative work developed with these participants took a format of several biographical workshops where each participant shared his/her experience of migration in a “table of voices” or Arbre à palabre. We are convinced that this format moves away from a focus group since we as researchers are not merely observing or focusing on an object of analysis. We ourselves are engaged in the process of cogenerative inquiry with concrete immigrants. The major concern of this project is to dig in, learn more, and understand the effective discrepancy between the institutional discourses on immigration in Portugal (country which earned several European awards of “good practices of integration”), and the lived experiences of immigrants of racism and discrimination.

All the immigrant participants had no material reward and gave their explicit authorization to publish their names. All of them consented to video recording of the biographical workshops which will be incorporated into a documentary film on immigration in Coimbra. Besides, they produce their own autobiographical videos, and other “biographical objects,” such as drawings and texts that they code thematically with the team afterwards. Throughout the process, they have a decisive voice as to which of the video and audio materials should be included into the documentary. Thanks to this collaborative format the original proposal has been enriched by another three relevant topics that are being taken on board in this project concerning the role of religious institutions in immigration contexts, gender discrimination, and institutional racism.

Even though we have identified four main analytical dimensions of the biographical accounts produced in this group work, namely linguistic, performative, mnemonic, and political, the goal of this essay is rather to analyze the three identified challenges brought by the project’s collaborative format.

The first one is equity among different people in the project. Despite the spatial design of our workshops (we sit in a circle) we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the researchers and the migrant participants lead similar lives outside the workshop. Some volunteers are unemployed or in critical financial situations. But precisely because of such asymmetry, collaborative formats in anthropological or social research are relevant, important and necessary. Do we aim to do research to reproduce social asymmetries or declassify cultures? No. Precisely because we are aware of inequalities and uncomfortable with them, we try to create a situation where affinities could be found or explored. At the end, the challenge here for anthropology is not to try or avoid “going native”, nor patronizing the immigrants working with us. Rather it is to walk the talk of cooperation with participants in a research project. For example, we include voices of illiterate or creole speaking volunteers through video and oral narratives. That is to say that no one’s linguistic or sociocultural resources are considered illegitimate at any stage of the project.

Secondly, the collaborative format implodes the very structure of “researcher-researchee” relationship, where the gains consist in forging an improbable friendship. We keep in contact and go to each other’s homes for meetings, lunches, interviews. Each workshop builds a sense of community, transforming participants into mutual friends or acquaintances. These relationships last beyond the working hours of the project, developing new reciprocities. Not only can we get to know more about human experience as anthropologists, but we all enact and live it. We walk the talk of collaboration in situ and beyond.

Finally, we deal with co-authorship in a sense that legitimizes disregarded and invisible/inaudible forms of knowledge or marginalized versions of history. Collaborative research creates that possibility. In this sense, doing anthropology becomes a coherent exercise in its ends too, as research participants contribute both to the process and outputs reverting their minority silences and invisibilities into public voice and visibility.

Elsa Lechner is a researcher at the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, where she co-coordinates the Humanities, Migrations, and Peace Studies Research Group. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris 2003). She is the PI of the collaborative project referred in this essay which is conducted by an interdisciplinary team: Carlos Elias Barbosa, Clara Keating, Giovanni Allegretti, Marina Galvanese, Olga Solovova. Our volunteers are: Abdurafik Rahimov, Alda Valle, Arcénio Martins, Bernardino Tavares, Dália David, Elisabete Febras, Flávia Batista, Kouassi Nda Koffi Augustin, Louise Georges, Lluba Danylova, Marcos Amazonas, Maria Lucinda da Cruz, Maria da Penha Carrico, Rosana Patané, Rosantina Co, Shaknoza Rahimov, Socorro Souza, Veronika Sokotnyuk, Zhou Miao, Virgílio Mandinga.

This thematic series on Collaboration was guest-edited by AN Contributing Editor Jeffrey Mantz (National Science Foundation). AN thanks him for his hard work on this series. 

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  1. Celso AlvarezCáccamo
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Yes, it’s a great project. I had the fortunate opportunity to know the project first-hand (I think Michele did, too), and to work with the team on the biographical workshops data, and they are extremely rich. Congratulations, Elsa & al., keep us posted.

  2. Michele Koven
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    This is a fascinating project that has the potential to affect no only the participants and researchers directly involved, but to shift larger Portuguese conversations about immigration.

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