Talking with, not about 'local' researchers
Local researchers play a vital role in the various research activities of many scholars at Ghent University. And yet, research within the field of conflict and development studies rarely recognizes the important role and contribution of research collaborators. Their invisibility has a number of problematic consequences. First, the marginalization of research collaborators in knowledge production fosters a research approach that risks prioritizing extraction of data and information from the field, at the expense of considering how researchers can make a contribution to local development actors with their research. Second, handbooks and training courses give scant attention to the subject of research collaborators, thus leaving students insufficiently prepared for research that requires collaboration with local researchers during field research. Third, the invisibility of research collaborators means that their capacities for development as local knowledge producers are overlooked as well as opportunities to valorize and disseminate research results in ways that can benefit local communities and stakeholders. The development impact of academic research is thus overlooked.
With these issues in mind, researchers from the Department of Conflict and Development Studies and the Department of History at Ghent University convened a two-day workshop in October 2018. This workshop, titled (Silent) Voices from the Field: Exploring New Avenues for Collaborative Research, brought together Ghent-based researchers and their counterparts from Kazakhstan, Uganda, Bangladesh, Peru, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines.
Objectives and creative methodologies
The aim of the workshop was to have a profound reflection on the challenges and dynamics of doing research together ‘in (and beyond) the field’. How can we make visible and recognize the important contributions of local researchers in academic knowledge production? How can we generate and share knowledge in a more collaborative fashion? How do power relations, research ethics and institutional pressures factor into the dynamics of knowledge production and publication? And perhaps most important of all, what do the research partners of Ghent researchers have to say on these issues?
Experimenting with creative methodological approaches during the workshop helped to create a comfortable space where silences and challenging experiences of both parties of the collaboration could be addressed and uncovered. In sharing personal experiences, issues pertaining to power relations, compensation, recognition and documentation, research outputs and precarious working conditions were discussed at length.
Additionally, “Words make Worlds”, a workshop theme referring to the use of terminologies in fieldwork practice, facilitated reflection on the nature, meaning and impact of how researchers on one end of the partnership are often addressed. Fixer, assistant, broker, collaborator, connector, ‘local’ researcher, host, associate, translator, guide, co-researcher, friend, colleague, protector,… the list is endless. Why are research partners originating from ‘the field’ so often called ‘local’ researchers, while foreign researchers arriving in a place they don’t know are just called “researchers”? What does this convey about the authority of knowledge? And how ‘local’ do ‘local researchers’ even feel they are in relation to the constructed ‘field’? What does it mean to be ‘local’?
The outcomes of the workshop?
First of all, the admission that this workshop is only the start of a much-needed conversation among and between researchers from the Global South and North. Second, the recognition that ‘local’ researchers should be directly involved in these discussions. Thus, talking with ‘local’ researchers instead of talking about them. And finally, a commitment to share our ongoing conversations, insights and aspirations with a broader audience we welcome to join the conversation.
Take a look at the manifesto, and the written reflections on many of the above mentioned issues on the blog space of this website! Contributions of the workshop participants will be trickling in every now and then!