Collaborative dilemmas


Policymaking and implementation across state institutions, international organisations and transnational networks of civil-society organisations are expanding fields of anthropological research. The complex positionalities that anthropologists adopt in these ethnographic contexts and their implications in epistemological, methodological and ethical terms are emerging as central issues in these fields.
This workshop explores different and often controversial forms of anthropological engagement with global policy worlds and the dilemmas that collaboration entails against the background of a dominant neoliberal research agenda.

Whether emerging from intention, serendipity or necessity, researchers’ commitment to the explored policy fields and their complicity with research subjects are recurrent patterns in these ethnographic situations. As interns, consultants, advocates, representatives of governmental or non-governmental organisations, experts or temporary employees, researchers become actors in the processes that they are observing. This insider status affords key opportunities for exploring the creative friction that different policy regimes bring to global governance. Inside-track and first-hand experience also prevents simplistic essentialisation of “institutional cultures”. Yet taking on a position outside the comfort zone of the “hands-off” approach exhumes anthropology’s skeletons in the closet and generates pressing methodological anxieties, evidence of the difficult relation between action and knowledge production that characterises social sciences’ worldly interventions.

Belonging to the “epistemic community” that contributes to shaping the explored policy programmes provides scholars with the opportunity to impact social and political debate, yet it also radically challenges the founding anthropological assumption of a distinction between self and other and is therefore regarded as an obstacle to genuine critique. Furthermore, while collaborative anthropology in the exploration of the worlds of the marginal, dispossessed or dominated is appreciated as a form of social responsibility, working with powerful organisations is suspected for its multiple responsibilities to institutional or political interlocutors and to the groups that are affected by their intervention. Within this context ethnographic research raises numerous methodological, political and ethical dilemmas, especially when it is directly or indirectly supported by standard-setting organisations and policy-making institutions.

As social sciences come to grips with neoliberal research models, academics increasingly live with this uneasiness. Trained to formulate questions aimed at unpacking policy apparatuses, they are expected to provide answers to policy issues and contribute to governance objectives following managerial, rather than speculative, logics. In these contexts, scholars face the challenge of disseminating their research while being aware of their interlocutors’ negative perception of the analytical language they use to describe policy interventions. There are clearly no easy solutions to these conundrums. This workshop sets out to interrogate collaborative dilemmas by exploring the epistemological, ethical and methodological consequences of engagement, as well as of disengagement, with governmental agendas, international organisations, and other superseding institutions.

Programme (pdf)

École des hautes études en sciences sociales
190 Av. de France
75013 Paris

12-13 April 2016

Session 1: Tuesday 12 April (14h00-18h00)
Session 2: Wednesday 13 April (9h30-13h00)
Session 3: Wednesday 13 April (14h00-18h00)

Participants and abstracts

Irène Bellier (CNRS)

Engaging collaborative anthropology with indigenous peoples

The mobilization of indigenous peoples, claiming for the recognition of their human and collective rights, led to a division within anthropology between those researchers who thought science has a responsibility —not for the marginalization indigenous groups have suffered since colonization but for using their social capital and intellectual position to put an end to human rights violations— and those researchers who consider a scientist has to be independent above all, or his/her research will not meet the academic requirement or be accepted. The communication will briefly expose where we are now, 45 years after the Declaration of Barbados was signed, which launched the basis for a world alliance between several sectors concerned by the promotion and protection of human rights; some states, sectors of different churches, parts of the academy, specialized NGO. It leads to thinking where some anthropologists engage in collaborative anthropology, and how they make a decision not to work on a particular subject such as an ethnic group but with indigenous peoples. We will examine the consequences of the choice such a decision entails in the study of the indigenous peoples movement I did from and within the United Nations, how it proved to open the avenue of thought and why the human matters determined it, in comparison with other anthropological analysis I made, on and within, different political and administrative organizations.

Julie Billaud (Allegra Lab, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, International Committee of the Red Cross)

The humanitarian ethnographer? On the methodological challenges and opportunities of researching the ICRC from within

This paper is an attempt to reflect on the challenges, opportunities and dilemmas I am currently facing as an anthropologist employed by one of the most prominent humanitarian organization in the world: the International Committee of the Red Cross whose headquarters are based in Geneva, Switzerland. Recruited in order to study the ‘diplomatic culture’ of the organization, the main objective of my research is to document the practices of ICRC’s ‘frontline negotiators’. ICRC employees who fall under this category are those in charge of negotiating access to prisoners of war, the wounded and civilians in situations of armed conflicts according to the ICRC’s mandate under the Geneva conventions. This research venture is part of a broader ambition of the ICRC’s Presidency to create a ‘community of practice’ and a Center of Competence in humanitarian diplomacy in Geneva.
Beside the pragmatic concerns linked to the current absence of positions in the academia that made me accept the job, this position presents a number of methodological advantages. It gives me an unobstructed access to the ‘field’ – an access that would be otherwise restricted given the strong culture of secrecy that exists in the organization. My participation in ICRC’s routine activities is an ideal way to gain insight into its bureaucratic culture, its language, its modus operandi and its current transformations. Nevertheless, my collaboration simultaneously presents a number of challenges that I would not face as an independent researcher. As an ICRC employee, I had to sign a clause of confidentiality which prevents me from publishing the findings of my research. The research is ‘action oriented’: it is ultimately meant to inform policy rather than contemporary academic debates on humanitarianism.
But is the somewhat awkward figure of the ‘humanitarian ethnographer’ the ideal location from which to study an international organisation like the ICRC? Building of a previous research carried out at the UN Human Rights Council, I try to unpack some of the methodological challenges linked to the various forms of collaborations I develop with my research interlocutors who, far from being ‘detached informants’, are often ‘engaged counterparts’.

Christoph Brumann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)

Heritage believer, heritage atheists, and other scholars in research about the UNESCO World Heritage arena

More so than if the topic is international trade or epidemic diseases, anthropologists and other social scientists tend to become engaged when they deal with UNESCO and its various heritage programmes, given also that these have become increasingly “anthropological” in the course of time. Surprisingly often, one finds either “heritage belief” (an identification with the arena and its conservation goals) or – perhaps more common by now – “heritage atheism” (worries about the pernicious effects of the arena and calls to overcome UNESCO and its programmes), also in the writings of scholars that do not do applied work themselves. Based on the literature and my own and colleagues’ experiences in review processes, I shall reflect on the causes, such as – for instance – the prominence of trained archaeologists in “critical heritage studies” and the power of disenchantment when erstwhile heritage believers lose their faith.


Chirstian Hottin (ministère de la Culture et de la Communication)

La fabrique de l’ethnologie du patrimoine : un regard de conservateur

On se propose dans le cadre de cette intervention d’exposer la question des relations entre ethnologues et conservateurs du patrimoine telles qu’elles sont appréhendées par ces derniers. Ces rapports seront dans un premiers temps considérés sous l’angle le plus général, celui des recherches en ethnologie du patrimoine ainsi que développées depuis plus de quinze ans dans le cadre d’un partenariat entre le ministère et le CNRS, via un laboratoire dédié en partie à cette thématique, le LAHIC. Dans un second temps, l’attention se focalisera sur le rapport complexe qui se noue entre conservateurs et ethnologues dans le cadre particulier de la mise en œuvre par la France de la convention de l’UNESCO pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel immatériel (PCI). Sera enfin posée la question de la pertinence de telles collaborations, toujours du point de vue d’un représentant de l’institution.

Kristin Kuutma (University of Tartu)
Contemplating the field, the method and accountability in the world of organisations: UNESCO apparatus from within

I propose to contemplate research agendas and constraints as well as methodological conundrums one faces while doing an ethnographic study inside the UNESCO apparatus. My analysis is based on long lasting fieldwork and observant participation to explore policy-making and governance related to the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. For me, the field has been a site for collecting data as well as a space that embodies strategic intervention. I shall investigate procedural and arbitrational mechanisms or negotiations in order to unravel the entanglement of relationships at play and to recognize also subjective factors in the process. The international policy setting scene of the Intergovernmental Committee meetings to the Convention and its subsequent ad hoc consultative or subsidiary bodies will be extended to national and sub-national responses, based on my experience of attending such assemblies in different countries.

George Marcus (University of California, Irvine)

Observations on Anthropologists Navigating Their Research Within the Global-Scaled Projects of Neoliberal Leviathans, Circa 2000-2010

In recent retrospect, I see the first decade of the new century as a crucial period of transition for many anthropologists, who had established their reputations earlier and who now had to define their ethnographic style of research, or the conditions of fieldwork, under conditions that challenged what was comfortable or conventional thinking about relationships of inquiry. “Collaboration” is one catch-all term, acceptable to all, to label this new reality of research but it does not capture the rethinkings, discomforts, and relabellings of that period. I will attempt to describe the adaptations that I saw around me, through certain observations on the work of Marilyn Strathern, Paul Rabinow, Douglas Holmes, Bill Maurer, Annelise Riles, Marc Abeles (and myself) during that decade. These experiences are still very relevant to understand the evolving present although what was challenging practice then has become more routine practice now. What has been gained? What has been lost?

Birgit Müller (CNRS)

Action research in the Committee on Food Security of the United Nations

After the world food crisis of 2008, when the number of people suffering from hunger rose from 850 million in 1996 to over a billion, the autonomous political space of civil society inside the Committee for Food Security (CFS) was strengthened and formalized. In the CFS, organizations of civil society and the private sector now sit alongside government representatives to discuss and make proposals on food policy issues.
For two years I followed in the reformed CFS the conception and negotiation of “Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment” establishing guidelines for governing the appropriation of agricultural land by investment funds, multinational corporations or foreign governments. The purpose of my participation was twofold, both academic and activist: I sought to elucidate the tensions between a mode of governance based on voluntary commitments and the constraining nature of human rights. As a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth International I wanted to influence the outcome of the negotiations and make sure that the principles compelled large investors to respect the right of farmers to their land and their seeds.

I was thus deeply involved in strategic discussions inside the mechanism of civil society, from the preparation of alternative language to the negotiation of the final texts. In this paper I would like to reflect on the ambiguity of this status, cast a reflexive glance on my participation and reflect on the ethical issues which would arise if I attempted to write about my experience. While I feel free to write about the content of the negotiations, I feel constrained in what I can say about the political strategies and tensions inside civil society mechanism without weakening its strategic position. How can I account for an extremely rich and complex experience without betraying the confidence of my fellow activists and the cause in which I was involved?

Ruth Phillips
(Carleton University)

From ‘Knowledge’ to “Knowledges’: Collaborative Research and Inter-Articulation in Museums

Museums are quintessential sites of translation– institutions mandated to mediate between the evidentiary standards developed in the academy and those recognized by the broader communities they serve. Although such translational processes have been problematic throughout the history of the modern museum, the decolonizing movements of the past forty years and the democratizing policies of governments desiring more larger and more diverse audiences have changed the dynamics of the problem. Until the late-twentieth century, debates and clashes tended to arise from conflicts between the academy’s value for complexity and the museum’s desire for simplification. Increasingly, however, the politics of pluralism and decolonization are pressuring museums to represent multiple perspectives and knowledges.

These shifts have been particularly marked in settler societies where decolonization unfolds within the boundaries of a unitary nation state. Public institutions are subject to closer scrutiny and may also be seen as valuable sites for advocacy or protest. In response, collaborative processes incorporating the ethics and methods of Participatory Research have become normative in many settler societies. Using primarily Canadian examples, this paper explores the challenges of presenting the multiple perspectives and knowledges which emerge from collaborative research. It argues for the value of ‘inter-articulation’ as a way of making present differing– and sometimes conflicting– facts, interpretations and narratives.

Giulia Scalettaris (IIAC- LAUM)

The International Organisation, Academia and the Researcher in the Making. Acts 1 and 2

This paper reflects on the evolving relationship between a young researcher (myself) and the organization that underpins her academic expertise (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). My PhD work analyses the intervention of the UNHCR in the Afghan crisis and examines the ways this organization exerts authority in the contemporary world. The research is based on a fieldwork carried out within the UNHCR, as intern and then as an employee of the organisation. Producing anthropological knowledge on the UNHCR based on an embedded fieldwork was a challenging endeavour for the apprentice researcher I was, first of all because of the difficulty of untangling institutional and anthropological thinking. My PhD diploma sanctioned myself as a researcher, but it revealed itself as a very preliminary step to start an academic career. Soon afterwards, I was involved in a study committed by the UNHCR on the predicament of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe. This time I was contracted as a young researcher in order to produce knowledge for the organization based on my expertise on the Afghan refugee crisis. My initial enthusiasm and self-assurance quickly waned, as soon as I realized that talking the language of the organization and my academic reflection on refugee policies were not sufficient to navigate the politics of expert knowledge production. This paper examines the epistemological and ethical stakes entailed by this shift of positioning.

Maria Sapignoli (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, O’Brien Fellow in Residence McGill University)

Dilemmas, Insecurities, and Opportunities in Multi-Positioned Ethnography

This paper will explore several areas of my research that began as multi-sited or multi-nodal, following key ideas and people in different places in Botswana and international organizations. From this point of departure, I took on diverse roles within each setting, making the projects both multi-sited and multi-positioned. In this paper I will consider the dilemmas and opportunities of this approach to ethnography. My ethnographic experience in international organizations has been connected to my interest in understanding a phenomenon through different ethnographic positions: as intern, consultant, anthropologist, expert, and activist. The general insecurity that follows from not having a single and well defined role favours experimentation and multi-positionality. This approach to ethnographic method presents distinct challenges, which may well constitute a generationally defined, innovative approach to ethnographic method.