Wie teilen? Or: “What do you have to share to be able to share knowledge production?”


Last week I went to a German workshop on ‘Geteilte Forschung’ (shared knowledge production) at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. The workshop, organised by Julia Verne and Jan Beek, addressed the increasing demands on researchers to co-produce through team work, interdisciplinary and transnational projects and multi-author publications, and the sorts of problems that brings with it. For instance, while shared knowledge production is widely advocated and funded, research esteem continues to be measured against the ideal of individual contributions (monographs, single-authored articles, ‘own’ funding). Here, the workshop sought to interrogate the potential consequences of such a dissonance. As the abstract asked: do we have to reorient our practices? Is shared knowledge production twice the work? Does it lead to superficial outcomes?

The way these questions were tackled in the workshop was through examples from academic practice: fieldwork methods, publication and funding strategies, managing new constellations of hierarchies and research priorities. Most participants in the workshop came from the discipline of ‘Ethnologie’ (study of peoples). The term was at first confusing (why not call this research social anthropology or sociology?), but was explained in the course of the workshop (e.g. by Thomas Bierschenk) as a historically grown disciplinary identity that distances itself from their apparent equivalents for very particular reasons (focus away from the individualisation/ generalisation, biological determinism, a particular German school – the Bielefeld School – that placed a political emphasis on ‘learning from the people’ etc). The remaining researchers came from subjects such as sociology, architecture, history, human geography and linguistics.

My own talk focused on different interpretations and utilisations of ‘internationalisation’ in the research context, giving the examples of how internationalisation impacts publications such as edited collections, and how attempts to diversify the curriculum are both demanded and resisted by students, academics and university management in quite different ways. Apart from two papers, the workshop was entirely run in German (this was my first ever German paper) which, I was told, was becoming an increasing rarity due to internationalisation demands and the resulting language hierarchies. This fact, and the related discussions around language in the workshop, sharpened my attention to the complex ways in which internationalisation impacts on research.

The most interesting part of the workshop for me was the attention to the wider structures that our research practices are embedded in, which is what I would like to focus on in this post. (Apologies in advance to my fellow workshop participants about the lack of inclusion of the equally significant debate over field methods and questions of reflexivity!) In particular, I appreciated how North-South relationships were discussed across multiple levels (individual, structural, geographical etc). Here, specifically the ethnologists contributed a diverse range of angles and contradictions, from grant proposal histories to complaints voiced by colleagues during ‘field’ research. As Judith Schlehe put it, sometimes you learn more through co-working with others than through focusing on the fieldwork topic itself. I found these interesting not only for my own research practice, but for my methods teaching. I appreciated that the workshop participants made extensive use of the potential to play with the German translation for the word ‘shared’, which can be translated as both ‘geteilt’ (which not only means shared, but divided) and ‘gemeinsam’ (which also means ‘common’ or ‘together’). For me, these seemingly opposing movements together encapsulate my experience of research, for instance, research as a common fight against that which seeks to divide, or as a desire to differentiate where commonalities are assumed.

Andrea Behrends and John Njenga Karugia, for instance, engaged with the agency of African academics: how do different knowledges and forms of knowledge production encounter one another? While Behrends had primarily experienced the relegation of African academics to the status of ‘informants’/’resource persons’ in the work of white academics, Karugia pointed to the ways African scholars challenge the “Northern theory master”/“Southern informant” relationship. While it was generally agreed that there is no absolute fixity of North and South, the structures that facilitated on-going divisions were pointed out. These included the persisting North-South traffic in research problems in exchange for funding (Wilke & Wrons-Passmann). In the past, this meant that money dictated a lot of the hierarchies and research practices, with the funder’s priorities routinely being prioritised (Lange & Bromber; Dagyeli). Even today, the money flows in research reorient a variety of practices, such as academics from the Global South becoming introduced to a project at a late stage of grant writing, often too late to have any significant influence on aims and concepts. The following questions emerged: ‘Whose research agenda, if the project is funded from outside and categories imported from outside?’ (Behrends) Whose categories are given preference to and taken seriously?’ (Scholz) ‘When does it make sense, to adopt or refuse local categories?’ (Tutzer & Mageza-Barthel) ‘How do transnational and postcolonial perspectives meet?’ (Tutzer & Mageza-Barthel) Here, Andrea Scholz also gave the example of Venezuelan ‘indigenous’ researchers and their struggle with accusations naïve realism. Given the absurdity of many Northern academic claims, her talk really showed the uncertain boundaries of categories: who is a naïve realist was not always clear. ‘

Recently, these power dynamics have come under scrutiny and have been partially rewritten, in an attempt to level hierarchies and facilitate a two-way exchange (Lange & Bromber). Internationalisation strategies now ‘test for diversity’ in different ways: they strive to involve project partners more closely, seek to better negotiate disciplinary advantages and attach funding to better research conditions. At the same time, however, well-meaning manoeuvres such as contract clauses to prevent ‘brain drain’ from the Global South – e.g. African researchers being required to stay in Africa (‘anywhere in Africa’) or being eligible for promotion at their home universities – were perceived as discriminatory by both Northern and Southern researchers who equally disliked the selectively limited mobility (Behrends). Further, internationalisation strategies were critiqued for perhaps placing less emphasis on the research than on strategic relations with project partners (Lange & Bromber). They also tend to privilege English as a research language, which again advantages people who are more fluent in English and also often leads to anglophone literature becoming more prevalent in citations. It was noted by many participants that practical or considerations were especially off the radar of internationalisation strategies, for instance pertaining to visa problems for invited researchers, political sensitivity of conference spaces, gender issues, feedback loops between countries regarding research topics, PhDs following NGO/Northern imposed models, cuts to language teaching, impossibility to manage the projects desired by research councils, or different academic conventions or accounting structures.

The question of language was explored in more depth by Jeanine Dagyeli, a researcher who works on Central Asia. She particularly looked at how language limits knowledge exchange, because of factors such as difficulty of learning other languages, lack of money or access, refusal or ban to speak a particular language for political reasons, and because of the lack of prestige for researchers from ‘Northern’ research systems, where publications in particular journals are valued. For academics who do decide to publish transnationally or multi-lingually, a struggle with different publishing conventions materialised as a next hurdle. From Dagyeli’s experience, this struggle for communication and understanding was very time and labour intensive – and at times can be very risky if a political publication leads to a ban for the researchers from re-entering the country – but also beneficial for gaining a deeper understanding the other culture and her colleague’s concepts and methods. Moreover, a different political and research impact can be achieved this way. Like Mirjam Tutzer and Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel, Dagyeli emphasised that local standards, categories and valorisations do not need to be uncritically adopted, but could be productively contested or negotiated. She also addressed the criticism of better resourced outsiders barging into local contexts and taking over local debates: is critique being invited or not? While there are clear cases of insensitivity, she also pointed to situations where local researchers were grateful for critical debate with their country or situation, because it was too dangerous for them to make such statements themselves. The researchers could then ‘draw on’ an outsider perspective in less problematic ways.

My favourite slide of the workshop: Beate Löffler showing how interdisciplinarity ‘works’

Aside from sharing across geographical boundaries, we also talked about sharing across disciplinary boundaries. Here, geographer Marc Boeckler pointed to the risks of interdisciplinarity: while it is often desired, the infrastructures for its successful implementation are lacking. A major risk comes from the lack of positions for interdisciplinary people, which constitutes a career risk: from what position onwards can one afford such a risk? (Or, in the words of Lange & Bromber: ‘Are you interdisciplinary enough – or too interdisciplinary?’) He argued that a ‘home for interdisciplinarity’ has to be created in some fashion, if it continues to be desired. Other participants suggested that same goes for shared authorship: while shared knowledge production is highly desired, the ideal of single-authored articles and monographs is upheld. Beate Löffler, on the other hand, illustrated the problem of methodological chaos and the emergence of conceptual hierarchies. She lamented how the burden of translation is never on the dominant discipline, but on the less prominent subject partners. These discussions finally led to a focus on publications. How to show different perspectives and layers in joint pieces of writing? (Behrends; Lange & Bromber) What is part of the writing process? What do you do with all those jointly produced/emerging thoughts that you didn’t include in publications? (Lange & Bromber) Who runs what risk with what kind of critique? How do you negotiate citation hierarchies and problematic ‘canon’ material?

Such considerations also influenced our debate around how to continue the discussions from the workshop. Both follow-up events and publications were proposed. In terms of publications, we asked: How do we go beyond mere description, group therapy (Bierschenk) or summarising? One pathway we considered were publication formats that might enable some form of discussion. After all, as organisers Julia Verne and Jan Beek had pointed out in their introduction, dialogues were once considered the main model for knowledge production. But then further questions appeared: Where do you publish? How do you write? How do you publish? (e.g. Open Access, peer-review) Where/how do you get the best responses or feedback? In terms of events, we wondered: how can we involve more people from other countries in such workshops? And how would that shape future workshops in terms of language and power dynamics?

For me, a question that came out of the workshop was: what are the dynamics between individuals and structures? I had touched on the question in my talk, but had not gone into it very deeply. The workshop raised new perspectives for me in terms of how structures shift or could be shifted. As Katrin Bromber put it: ‘We don’t support a system: we are it.’ In this context, our performances as academics, both in the ‘global political performance of academia’ (Bierschenk) and in local or personal exchanges, were highlighted as imbued with a potential for significance. As my colleague Olivia Rutazibwa, who unfortunately was not present at the workshop, recently reminded me: academics have influence, and this influence can be managed in different ways. This influence can be exerted in a variety of ways, whether through charismatic personalities, as highlighted by Judith Schlehe, or through layers of reflexivity that translate into practices or collaborations. For me, this translated into a hopeful message: when we share knowledge and knowledge production, we don’t need to resignate in frustration or accept existing frameworks, but we can potentially shift uncomfortable structures if we remind ourselves that, on the one hand it is not just about our own little project, and, on the other hand, that larger structures are made up of smaller ones. In navigating larger structures that affect us, we can potentially ‘affect back’ or ‘make demands’, as it was put. In terms of shared knowledge production, the guiding questions here might be: What do you have to share to be able to share knowledge production? How far do you need to take this sharing to make a difference in the way we share?

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