Forming Mobile Research Teams

A group of anthropologists forego the tenure track to forge an alternative and interdisciplinary academic space.

All too often job-seekers go it alone, believing that placing themselves “on the academic market” amounts to the best way to locate gainful employment, when forming research teams would enable them to negotiate directly for better terms.
Last year, our small group of three anthropologists trained in the United States and Great Britain decided to attempt a rare professional move: to forego participating in the more normative, individualized pursuit of tenure-track work in the global North in order to create a novel space of team-oriented scholarly production in Ecuador—a country we call home. Our decision was admittedly somewhat frightening; not seeking tenure-track work or affiliations with academically better-known universities, colleges, or research centers is often viewed as tantamount to rejecting one’s disciplinary conventions. Unfortunately, North-centric labor conventions or expectations are rather commonplace in academia, even within a patently internationalist or comparativist discipline such as anthropology. Nevertheless, in the current and increasingly global context of academic labor precarity, what we call “mobile research teams” can carve out rewarding and highly innovative academic spaces—often vis-à-vis unlikely partnerships or unexpected national contexts.

Academic labor is an important topic in the remaking of university life. New discussions around labor precarity in anthropology (eg., Cultural Anthropology’s forum, 2018) hinge primarily around preparing our graduate students for work not only in academic departments but also in public, private, or third sectors. There are clearly alternative and innovative ways in which to pursue individual academic careers. All too often job-seekers go it alone, believing that placing themselves “on the academic market” amounts to the best way to locate gainful employment, when forming research teams would enable them to negotiate directly for better terms. In Ecuador, we believed from the outset that our team would be particularly well placed to promote collaborative projects that tie together universities, industries, publics, and institutions in new and mutually attractive modalities of interdependence. Our recent experience suggests that mobile research teams may become indispensable to the discipline of anthropology.

Academia in Ecuador

Like most national public university sectors, Ecuador’s higher education institutions have undergone a process of dramatic restructuring that delimited possibilities for scholarly research. A boom in funding in the late 2000s, stimulated by the neo-socialist presidency of Rafael Correa, saw the development of flagship public research universities (universidades emblematicas) to mark Ecuador’s new and hopeful place on the map of global academia. Yet the building out of academic infrastructure also exposed the public university system’s revenue streams to increased financial risk. When Ecuador’s oil revenues—the country’s primary economic engine—took a downturn in the early 2010s, university budget outlays followed suit. Research-oriented public universities responded with “necessary cuts” that effectively hamstrung support for active scholarship.

We have seen firsthand that anthropology’s long-standing disciplinary calls for embracing public, institutional, or collaborative research agendas are not merely aspirational; they are essential for developing sustainable research teams.
In 2017, we pitched to several hard-hit public universities the idea of organizing a team of ethnographic researchers to be shared between two universities, and the prospect of such interinstitutional collaboration grabbed the attention of academic leadership. University of Cuenca and the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO–Ecuador)—the former a traditional research university, the latter a graduate training university in the social sciences—eventually sponsored our team and its vision, which culminated in the founding of Kaleidos: Centro de Etnografía Interdisciplinaria (or, Kaleidos: Center for Interdisciplinary Ethnography).

Interdisciplinary research and interinstitutional partnership

Teaming up with other scholars to produce new kinds of employment requires intellectual purpose. In Ecuador, we knew that anthropology’s ethnographic methods had much to offer other institutions and academic disciplines. Indeed, our Centro’s focus on interdisciplinary ethnography was pragmatically set up to make our research more useful to state ministries, national universities, public organizations, local municipalities, and international funding bodies. Our extramural pitches to research for different organizations gained initial traction and seed funding from citizens’ councils, police institutions, and research laboratories—and the list of our sponsoring partners continues to grow. We have seen firsthand that anthropology’s long-standing disciplinary calls for embracing public, institutional, or collaborative research agendas are not merely aspirational; they are essential for developing sustainable research teams.

Mobile research teams can benefit from mixed financial models for institutional sustainability. Our funding model allows for universities to hire us through basic research salaries with a low teaching load in exchange for more extensive dedication to research and publication. None of this would have been possible had we not individually and independently developed multiple relationships with governmental, corporate, and NGO groups beforehand. Some of our members are Ecuadorian citizens and others are of Ecuadorian extraction, yet each one of us has cultivated strong organizational ties and research-based relationships in the country (through ethnographic fieldwork on prisons, police, migration, debt, laboratories, and state institutions). These relationships proved themselves key to demonstrating the value of our mobile research team to different universities and non-academic entities, as well as our goal of bringing them together into closer working relationships.

An institutional ethic of rejecting zero-sum labor logics similarly helps. Our partner institutions both enjoy a peculiar advantage by hiring our mobile research team: any published work we produce will count as proprietary to both FLACSO and the University of Cuenca. That is to say, our extramural funding and research products effectively count twice as a result of our joint-sponsorship. This research instrument in turn has aided in securing government and non-governmental funding for the Centro. The backing of two of the country’s major public universities both heightens the Centro’s research profile, and affords our project with extra research associations and practicable credibility.

Collective bargaining

Labor collectivization and mobility within academia requires local contacts and experience, to be sure, but also demands that we reconceive how academics may collectively bargain. For example, during our negotiations we included anthropologists already working in our sponsoring universities within our projects to join us as full members of our team. A policy of team-oriented collaboration and inclusiveness makes great sense. The broadening of our team’s membership allows for us to incorporate new areas of research within our center and to contract work with different entities. Another area of thinking outside the box involved using “couple hires” to make “team hires” more attractive to sponsoring universities. As we all know, it is commonplace to negotiate with hiring universities to contract the trailing partner of a highly recruited academic. Though two of the members of our collective are a married couple, we nevertheless insisted that hiring them would require hiring others (now and in the future) in order to form a more dynamic team. By directly negotiating our hires as a team, we openly challenged the liberal conjugal affordances of university administrations (which normalize the hiring of academic couples) and the zero-sum exclusivity of the hiring process. This also means that now two universities partake in the hiring process, sharing financial and administrative responsibilities for a team of academics.

Of course, what appear to be rather novel labor configurations among anthropologists may not be so unusual in different academic disciplines. Hard scientists of all kinds group together in research teams and often relocate to enjoy better-equipped laboratories or improved terms of labor. The discipline of anthropology’s long-standing, but perhaps increasingly obsolescent reliance on the ideal-type of the intrepid lone teacher-researcher may be unnecessary or even damaging when imported into our hiring practices. We believe mobile research teams dedicated to interdisciplinary, practical problems will become a different academic project that serves as a model for rethinking the tenure track. Moving beyond individualized tenure-track competition, while finding interstitial spaces to support and advance personal and group research agendas, may also be one way to think about new centers of anthropological productivity moving forward.

Chris Garcés, Jorge Núñez, and Maka Suarez collaborated to found the Centro de Etnografía Interdisciplinaria, University of Cuenca and Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO–Ecuador), Ecuador.

Cite as: Garcés, Chris, Jorge Núñez, and Maka Suarez. 2018. “Forming Mobile Research Teams.” Anthropology News website, July 20, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.932

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