Collaboration: Translation

From the Series: Collaboration

Photo by diannehope14.

Two weeks before concluding several years of fieldwork with the Italian alter-globalization movement, I found myself in a very awkward situation. Upon attempting to enter a conference organized by the Network of Disobedients (Disobeddienti)—one of the largest activist networks in Italy—I was briskly, almost violently, stopped at the entrance to the social center by one of the very few female leaders. She was visibly angry. “Who are you to criticize us? Do I come into your house—that you invited me into—and criticize you?!” she yelled at me as she blocked me from entering the center I had frequented for almost six years. I was startled, to say the least, but she had raised a good question. What responsibility did I have to neutrality, to staying out of the fray of a heated debate about the gap between rhetorical claims to feminist concern and actual practice?

A few days earlier, I had added my name to a public letter written to the Disobeddienti to acknowledge a certain level of contradiction (if not hypocrisy) in what seemed like an opportunistic alliance with feminist concerns, given that the network had ignored or neglected the concerns and demands of feminist compagni (comrades) for years. To be honest, I had signed the letter too casually, not thinking about my position as ethnographer but rather adding my support to an initiative of a feminist queer collective, which had left the social center because of practices that were not queer-friendly and were, at times, anti-feminist (for instance, marginalizing concerns about abortion rights and sexual violence, or reproducing very traditional sexual divisions of labor in terms of leadership vs. tasks like cooking). Did my signature, which was a de facto criticism of part of the broader movement or activist assemblage with which I was working, violate my ethical responsibilities as an ethnographer, particularly a militant ethnographer or activist anthropologist who was working in political solidarity with my interlocutors and their cause (see Juris 2007)? When faced with the anger of this activist leader—and then others in the coming days—I had very real doubts about the efficacy of my actions. These doubts were heightened by prevailing understandings of activist anthropology.

We often think of activist, engaged, or public anthropologies as forms of collaborative ethnographic work that, by definition, align us with communities, especially marginalized communities. In this vein, collaboration supposes that we work on behalf of social movements or others in struggle (Hale 2006, 2008), often against a common opponent or toward an agreed-upon political end. While the intention is certainly to move toward justice, this definition of activist or collaborative research tends to presume that social movements and communities are clear-cut entities with common goals with which we, anthropologists, can easily name and align. The truth of the matter is that in the field, as in life, things are a lot messier. While the ideals of activist anthropology reflect our desire for “united labor and co-operation,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines collaboration, this desire does not translate neatly to our on-the-ground practices or decisions. As my experience suggests, at times conflicts and differences arise, both between ourselves and activists we work with and among activist groups and networks.

As Davis aptly writes in her Provocation, we cannot assume that “collaborative research is a sure path to harmony or justice.” But what if it is precisely at points of tension and disharmony—even in the limits and endings to relationships—that our collaborations are most productive and politically transformative? I want to suggest that frictional or conflictual moments can become important sites of collaborative knowledge production, even if, at the time, that collaboration feels more like conflict than co-laboring. This, in turn, requires that we recognize that knowledge and theory production are key sites of political practice and struggle and constitute a terrain that activists themselves work in, precisely because theories and knowledges can either constrain or enable effective work for more just worlds. In fact, our collaborations exist within broader fields that traverse or encompass both activist and academic worlds.

A great deal of my fieldwork involved collaborations with Italian and transnational activist networks that were themselves producing theoretical and analytical texts. They, as much as I, sought to make sense of the alter-globalization movement, the political conjuncture, and the visions of social change being developed and debated by various facets of the movement (e.g., Shukaitis, Graeber, and Biddle 2007). Elsewhere, I have emphasized that this work is a theoretical practice, critiquing the divide between academic theorization and activist practice which has informed much of the literature on activist anthropology (Osterweil 2010, 2013). I define theorization as both a set of material practices and a political and epistemological ethos. It involves practices of analysis, deliberation, research, investigation, questioning, thinking, and theorizing, through the production of texts, reflexive discourse, and more subtle forms of creative intervention. Part and parcel of the material and quotidian practices of activism, this theoretical work often looks like critique or the elaboration of concepts and ideas that are actively in debate—and sometimes its main effect is to name debates or tensions that had been largely unarticulated.

The place of feminism in the Italian and broader global justice and solidarity movement was one of the rich—if often fraught—sites for this kind of theoretical work. In fact, conflicts around feminism repeatedly emerged (see Eschle 2005), yielding online debates and new understandings of the place of, and contradictions surrounding, feminism in broader global justice movements. (Indeed, an activist academic essay of my own on these questions was read widely by activists just a few months before the incident above occurred.) As such, these conflicts were productive because they yielded insights, lessons, and theoretical innovations, particularly about the gap between theory and practice, rhetoric and politics, and the ongoing influence of feminist theory. Moreover, the specific conflict with which I opened this piece actually highlighted a key puzzle or gap in our mutual understanding—as activists and anthropologist—of how to translate intellectual, rhetorical, and theoretical articulations and desires to more embodied, experiential, actual practices and cultures. Or, at least, the conflict helped to clarify the problem.

I believe that collaboration which embraces this kind of conflictual knowledge production is vital if we are to get out of what many have agreed is a moment of deep political impasse, when the dominant political theories and imaginaries no longer seem to adequately describe or offer frameworks for progressive or transformative work. That we might be left with more frustration than satisfaction, more questions than answers, is precisely the risky kind of collaboration we need to undertake.


Eschle, Catherine. 2005. “‘Skeleton Women’: Feminism and the Antiglobalization Movement.” Signs 30, no. 3: 1741–69.

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.

———. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2007. “Practicing Militant Ethnography with the Movement for Global Resistance in Barcelona.” In Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization, edited by Stevphen Shukaitis, David Graeber, and Erika Biddle, 164–78. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press.

Osterweil, Michal. 2010. “In Search of Movement: Italy’s Movimento Dei Movimenti, Theoretical Practice and Remaking the Political” PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

Shukaitis, Stevphen, David Graeber, and Erika Biddle. 2007. Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press.