Collaboration: Integration

From the Series: Collaboration

Photo by diannehope14.

We sit in campuses that were military bases, where research is contracted for military or industry use, use funds generated in the wealth-making centers of industry, expropriation, extraction, and commodification, even as we decry empire and insist on revealing its ubiquity. . . . As actors and agents at this site where the possibilities of liberal education meet the legacies and realities of racialization, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of violence, how do we make sense of this complicity and act to transform it?

—Meg Wesling

Nearly twenty years ago, in an essay on fieldwork imaginaries in the post-Geertz era, George Marcus urged us to rethink the assumptions of collaboration that gather under the term rapport. We might instead, Marcus (1997, 87) wrote, consider rapport’s “evil twin”: complicity. For Marcus, complicity recognizes that anthropology’s “objects” are quite often intellectual partners, and that anthropologist and interlocutor often face similar impasses and “common predicaments” (98). Today, as collaboration increasingly appears as a purported panacea for the ethical challenges of ethnography, this conception of complicity is worth revisiting.

I learned to think about complicity doing fieldwork with queer left activists in New York City, Chicago, and Montreal. On a cold and damp Manhattan day in January 2012, I stepped out of the elevator and into the office of Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ). I had come to ask Amber Hollibaugh, QEJ’s co–executive director, if I could volunteer. Amber was on the phone, talking to a potential funder. When she joined me at the conference table in the center of the room, I told her, starry-eyed, that QEJ was the inspiration for the project I was beginning on how activists theorize queerness with poverty, class, capitalism. That day was a bracing immersion in the realities of theorizing within the nonprofit-industrial complex. For all of QEJ’s hard-won achievements—the homeless shelter work, vision statements like "beyond marriage" and “queers and immigration,” and even the new project about queer survival economies on which I ended up collaborating (Hollibaugh and Weiss 2015)—QEJ’s ability to survive was always in jeopardy. In today’s nonprofit world, the vast majority of funding goes to large, single-issue organizations; the rest is keyed to particular initiatives and deliverables. Thinking, theorizing, reflection, and collaboration are not funding priorities—at least not for organizations like QEJ, which focus on impossible-to-quantify goals like queer economic justice. Indeed, by the end of the year, QEJ was forced to close its doors.

Yes, you might be thinking: we’ve all read INCITE’s (2007) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. We already know that activist work is compromised by the ever-expanding nonprofit-industrial complex. But rarely do we consider the ways that our work in the academy is, too.

I want to use this Integration essay to explore complicity as a way to think about our collaborations not so much with others, but with the neoliberal institutions that both enable and constrain our intellectual work. Often in activist anthropology, the institution within which our knowledge is produced—the university—is curiously absent. Activist academics typically imagine that collaboration entails us working “on behalf of social movements or others in struggle,” as Michal Osterweil puts it in her piece. But as Dana-Aín Davis and Elizabeth Chin argue, in different contexts, when we take for ourselves the arrogant role of assisting others who may not want our help or when we assume that they have much to learn from us, but we have nothing transformative to learn from them, we reproduce the divisions between anthropologist/informant or expert/object that collaboration is intended to undermine.

In my own research, I reject the assumption—common in much activist anthropology—that activists do, while academics think (cf. Osterweil 2013; Hale 2006). QEJ’s New Queer Agenda, Desiring Change, the Welfare Warriors Research Collaborative’s Fabulous Attitude report, and the ongoing Queer Survival Economies project are cases in point. But insisting that activists theorize has, for me, a necessary corollary: insisting that we academics are just as compromised as they are by the institutions within which we work.

As fieldwork took me further into the challenges of queer and left activist theorizing, I came to see these constraints quite vividly. Both activists and academics are subject to logics that Marilyn Strathern (2000) describes in terms of “audit,” accounting logics that fuse the financial with the moral. Over time, the mundane, bureaucratic practices of audit cohere into ways of knowing—and knowing what matters. And what matters is metrics: return on investment, measurable outputs, proof of performance, productivity scales. In the nonprofit world, this has led to innovations like strategic philanthropy, where if it cannot be measured, it does not matter. In my own milieu, metrics like numbers of students served or learning assessments are how resources like tenure lines are allocated (university audit cultures in the United Kingdom and continental Europe are far more pervasive). Of course, Strathern (1996/7, 17) notes, this is not how knowledge is made: learning requires time and reflection, and research requires “wasteful and dead-end activities.” Yet if we do not thrive, Strathern reminds us, it is “a management inadequacy on the part of the academic—one has not paced oneself properly. One should make time for time. The result is a vague, persistent and crippling sense of failure.”

Elsewhere, I have written about how our frustration with the contemporary university can lead us to seek an escape by aligning ourselves with our objects of study: with activists who are doing things out there, with queer objects who are transgressing the strictures that bind us (Weiss 2015). As much as I share these political desires, I worry that these alignments help us to ignore the fact that we work within the same institutional logics as activists, subject to similar demands. Melissa Checker (2014) includes in these demands new university interests in public scholarship and civic engagement—a challenge to the image of activist scholars bravely battling the stodgy academy. Of course, not all activist scholarship is palatable to our institutions. Still, in the contemporary academy, where politicized intellectual labor among entrepreneurial faculty is simultaneously promoted and contained, we need to be attentive to what our desires for solidarity yield (Greyser and Weiss 2012; Joseph 2015).

This is where I think we could take a lesson from activists, who reckon with complicity much more straightforwardly than we academics do. In meeting after meeting, the activists with whom I worked offered critical and complex accounts of the conditions within which they produce knowledge: how they channel funding for, say, zine-making toward supporting visionary prison abolitionist work in Chicago, or redirect state public-health funding toward decriminalizing HIV in Montreal. This work was frustrating, to be sure, but activists were not paralyzed by their enmeshments in the systems within which they worked. They did not seek an elsewhere or an escape.

As intellectual work in and out of the academy is increasingly difficult to sustain—attacked, contained, and redirected—we cannot sidestep our complicities. Queer and feminist critical university-studies scholars have urged us to acknowledge that we try to make transformative knowledge while enmeshed in institutions that perpetuate precisely what we seek to undo (Ferguson 2012; Chatterjee and Maira 2014). In anthropology, this might help us think with and alongside others, which some have called co-theorizing (Rappaport 2008), without romanticizing our alignment with others or mistaking social-justice knowledge practices for ethnographic ones. It might lead us toward a more complex theorization of the impasses of the worlds that we share.

For as Marcus reminds us, complicity, like collaboration, has another side: it is not only being an accomplice—it is also the state of being involved. We are involved with each other, and with our institutions. We are enmeshed, implicated, integrated—whether we like it or not.


Chatterjee, Piya, and Sunaina Maira, eds. 2014. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Checker, Melissa. 2014. “Anthropological Superheroes and the Consequences of Activist Ethnography.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 2: 416–20.

Ferguson, Roderick A. 2012. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press.

Greyser, Naomi and Margot Weiss. 2012. “Introduction: Left Intellectuals and the Neoliberal University.” American Quarterly 64, no. 4: 787–93.

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.

Hollibaugh, Amber, and Margot Weiss. 2015. “Queer Precarity and the Myth of Gay Affluence.” New Labor Forum 24, no. 3: 18–27.

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. 2007. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.

Joseph, Miranda. 2015. “Investing in the Cruel Entrepreneurial University.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114, no. 3: 491–511.

Marcus, George E. 1997. “The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork.” Representations, no. 59: 85–108.

Osterweil, Michal. 2013. “Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice.Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4: 598–620.

Rappaport, Joanne. 2008. “Beyond Participant Observation: Collaborative Ethnography as Theoretical Innovation.” Collaborative Anthropologies 1, no. 1: 1–31.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1996/97. “From Improvement to Enhancement: An Anthropological Comment on the Audit Culture.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 19, no. 3: 1–21.

_____. 2000. “Introduction: New Accountabilities.” In Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy, edited by Marilyn Strathern, 1–18. New York: Routledge.

Weiss, Margot. 2015. “Queer Economic Justice: Desire, Critique, and the Practice of Knowledge.” In Global Justice and Desire: Queering Economy, edited by Nikita Dhawan, Antke Engel, Christoph F. E. Holzhey, and Volker Woltersdorff, 79–95. New York: Routledge.