Photo by snowsoulmate, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

Collaboration has its benefits. Working together with others toward a shared goal can make specific tasks go more quickly, for example, while introducing a range of different perspectives can minimize tunnel vision and maximize potentially fruitful contributions. Indeed, one of the foundational ideologies of a push for collaboration in different contexts, including in anthropology, is the simple premise that toiling together will inevitably result in something more than if one were just to go it alone. That “something more” will, it is assumed, always be straightforwardly good.

Collaboration can also be a little risky. Certain collaborators may be useful because of their expertise or connections, but they may also be difficult to work with. Individuals surrender some control to work in pairs or a group, and the practicalities of collaboration, especially for projects that extend over long periods of time, can be exhausting, distracting, or even counterproductive. For ethnographers accustomed to working alone—or socialized not to think of their ethnographic work as collaborative—toiling together can feel more like a burden than a blessing.

Illustration by Luke Cantarella.

Traditional ethnographic research tends to start with some sort of intuition that, if followed, constitutes a good risk out of which the work can grow. Along the way, such intuitions pile up, coalescing into a long process of what could be called hunchwork, an ongoing attempt to tether hypotheticals to the actuality of present circumstances. The first step in hunchwork is often that intuition that the project itself is feasible and worthy of study. Other steps include a hunch that the project is timely, that the methods employed are the proper ones, and that the chosen interlocutors are the right people to talk to. And, as we write, we follow a hunch that the texts we produce are adequate and accurate representations of the worlds we explore in our fieldwork. It’s hunches all the way down.

Research collaborations are often built on and motivated by collective hunchwork, a more socially mediated kind of gut-following exercise. Collaborations begin with the hunch that assembling this group of people and not some other group will be beneficial to the overall project. Here, again, hunches drive the work as it progresses. The practical scaffolding that supports collaboration-in-action involves articulating hunches, giving them form, and figuring out how to follow them through. Hunches produce a particular species of phrasing, which includes “what if we try . . .” and “how about . . .” and “maybe we can . . . ,” each of which introduce, however tentatively, a good risk into the flow of the collaborative process and subject it to assessment by the group. Sometimes hunches are pursued, sometimes they’re abandoned, but they always publicly model informed speculation about the current and future state of the collaboration. In other words, collective hunchwork facilitates the distribution, amplification, and authorization of intuition within a framework of mutual accountability.

The collective hunchwork perspective isn’t meant to demote or dismiss collaboration’s more systematic aspects. To be sure, things like reason, evidence, planning, organizing, and so on are always required for managing the progress of both research and collaboration, in whatever configurations they take. But such structure is typically accompanied by less systematic practices that operationalize that structure, giving it meaning and texture. Collective hunchwork highlights those embodied, instinctual, and indistinct interpretive actions that steer collaborators in the direction of setting and solving the problems they identify and systematically lay out in their work. Patrick Jagoda (2016, 202) describes collaboration as “critical complicity,” emphasizing the ethical and political links between collaborators over the organizational arrangement of participants. For collective hunchwork to work well, collaborators must cooperate with complicity in their shared project, trusting not only their own individual hunches, but the hunches of their partners, too. Indeed, collective hunchwork is fundamentally contingent upon fostering trust, and with that comes responsibility. The logic of collective hunchwork is neither provable nor immediately defensible. But it must advance, as it has for some time now, with the hope that proffered intuitions will lead the group in profitable directions that prove beneficial beyond the academy.


Jagoda, Patrick. 2016. Network Aesthetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.