Correspondences: Collaboration

collaboration, n.
Pronunciation: /kəˌlabəˈreɪʃən/
Etymology: noun of action, < Latin collabōrāre to collaborate v.: probably immediately < French.  

1. United labor, co-operation; esp. in literary, artistic, or scientific work.
2. spec. Traitorous cooperation with the enemy  

Oxford English Dictionary

Collaboration. Public domain image.

Anthropology is always collaborative. We make our knowledge in cooperation with others: with interlocutors in the field, upon whom we are utterly dependent; with co-researchers and colleagues with whom we design projects and share expertise; with our disciplinary strictures and demands; and with the neoliberal institutions that train, employ, and fund us. Anthropology is also collaborative in the second sense—traitorous, or at least complicitous, with longer histories of disciplinary knowledge production that leave anthropology as, if not the handmaiden of colonialism, at least its kin (Asad 1973; Harrison 1991; Allen and Jobson 2016). The Oxford English Dictionary’s two definitions of collaboration coexist in anthropological practice, even as we have increasingly embraced the first as a means to challenge the second.  

In the last twenty years, we’ve turned toward engaged, activist, and public anthropology, seeking to make anthropological knowledge production more participatory and political (Scheper-Hughes 1995; Lassiter 2005; Hale 2006; Checker 2010). Such possibilities have precedents in feminist and women of color ethnography, which have long cultivated reciprocal, dialogic, and horizontal relationships between researcher and researched—even as the challenges of such collaboration are well documented (Stacey 1988; Behar 1996; Craven and Davis 2013). Across the discipline, anthropologists have turned new attention to persistent problems of epistemology and representation: what counts as an object of knowledge; how we can rework binaries of anthropologist/informant, expert/object, and knower/known; and whether ethnographic ways of knowing are necessarily also ways of objectifying and controlling (Povinelli 2006; Robbins 2013; Simpson 2014; Hankins 2015). Collaboration as a method and a problem sheds light on the ethics of anthropological knowledge production—its potentials and its pitfalls, the hopes it reflects and the disappointments it yields.  

At a time when collaborative ideals and practices have become standard across a variety of domains—from crowd-sourcing and data sharing to scientific laboratories and social movements (see Holmes and Marcus 2008)—this Correspondences session pays critical attention to the dilemmas of collaboration. Contributors consider: What are the political desires that incite and sustain collaboration? How does collaboration challenge but also reproduce more hierarchical, less liberatory ethnographic knowledge practices? What forms of accountability does collaboration demand? What are collaboration’s contradictions—its ethical limits and its hopeful horizons? Whose collaboration, and for what?  

Posts in This Series  

Provocation: Dána-Ain Davis is Associate Chair of the Master’s program in Urban Studies at Queens College and teaches in the PhD program in anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her work focuses on political economy, race, gender, and feminist ethnography. She is the author of Battered Black Women and Welfare Reform: Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2006) and co-author, with Christa Craven, of Feminist Ethnography: Thinking Through Methodologies, Challenges and Possibilities (2016). ​  

Translation: Michal Osterweil is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on contemporary social movements and their knowledge production. Her dissertation focused on the theoretical-practice and political imaginaries of the Italian Global Justice Movement and related transnational networks, and her recent book project is on rethinking movements through the lens of failure.

Deviation: Elizabeth Chin is an ethnographer and anthropologist whose practice includes performative scholarship, ethnographic collaboration, and experimental writing. She is author of My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries (2016) and Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (2001). A founding faculty member of the Media Design Practices/Field track at Art Center College of Design, she has conducted fieldwork in Haiti, Uganda, and the urban United States.  

Integration: Margot Weiss is Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of the award-winning Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (2011); her current book project, Visions of Sexual Justice, explores the intellectual work of queer activism in the midst of political impasse. She is co-chair of the Association for Queer Anthropology.  

Implication: Savannah Shange is a joint doctoral candidate in Africana studies and education at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies circulated and lived forms of Blackness using the tools of anthropology, critical ethnic studies, and queer of color critique. Her dissertation examines the afterlife of slavery in contemporary social movements, and her writing can be found in Women and Performance and on The Feminist Wire.  


Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.

Asad, Talal, ed. 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca Press.

Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. 1996. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.  

Checker, Melissa, David Vine, and Alaka Wali. 2010. “A Sea Change in Anthropology? Public Anthropology Reviews.” American Anthropologist 112, no. 1: 5–6.  

Craven, Christa, and Dána-Ain Davis. 2013. Feminist Activist Ethnography: Counterpoints to Neoliberalism in North America. New York: Lexington Books.  

Hale, Charles R. 2006. “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 1: 96–120.  

Hankins, Joseph D. 2015. “The Ends of Anthropology: 2014 in U.S. Sociocultural Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 117, no. 3: 553–64.  

Harrison, Faye V., ed. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.  

Holmes, Douglas R., and George E. Marcus. 2008. “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter.” Collaborative Anthropologies 1, no. 1: 81–101.  

Lassiter, Luke Eric. 2005. “Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 46, no. 1: 83–106.  

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2006. The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3: 447–62.  

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36, no. 3: 409–44.  

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

Stacey, Judith. 1988. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?Women’s Studies International Forum 11, no. 1: 21–27.

Posts in This Series

Collaboration: Implication

Collaboration: Integration

Collaboration: Deviation

Collaboration: Translation

Collaboration: Provocation