On Collaboration in Research and Activism

The relationship between “collaboration” and “career” in research is very complicated, but we still don’t seem to talk about it as much as we should. This is a conversation we especially have to have with students who might be considering to take a collaborative path on their academic trajectories.

Presentation at the Winter School of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies on March 10-12, 2021.

I’d like to start by reflecting about the topics suggested by some of the questions at the description of the Winter School on the Collegium’s website. These questions are: 

  1. Why do researchers collaborate?
  2. What kind of collaboration advances your academic career? 
  3. How to navigate the landscape of collaborative research projects as an early-career researcher? 

I will use these questions to reflect about my own experience juggling with different types of  collaboration while building my career. In the process, I hope to add some questions for us to discuss. 

Since I started my research career fourteen years ago when I moved from Brazil to Finland, I started working on what I call my research question for life: How do people in marginalized, discriminated and underprivileged social groups use communication for social changes towards rights, justice and respect?

In the MA, I studied minority groups in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the PhD, I researched media activism in favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Now, I’m working on media activism against racism in Finland and Brazil.

During the MA and much of the PhD, I didn’t even think about collaboration. My focus was on making sure I established my career and guaranteed income in Finland. However, as I advanced my career, I felt anguished for feeling that I was advancing by exploiting people’s works and biographies especially during the research in Brazil.

I wondered: 

Am I reproducing the unequal power relations that I always criticized? What can I do as a researcher not to reproduce inequalities?

That is why I gradually started to include terms like “dialogue”, “respect” and “collaboration” in my methodological planning. That’s also when the path for career development I had built became very exciting, but also very messy. 

In essence, “collaboration” means working together. Producing something together. In addition, it has another another very important, but often neglected, characteristic: Equally benefiting from whatever was produced together.

My efforts to collaborate with underprivileged activists in Finland and Brazil have taught me how difficult it is to find power balance.

Take income, for example. My research plans have fortunately always been appealing to employers and funding institutions. Yet, the people with whom I collaborate have struggled and continue to do so to make ends meet.

After my PhD, media activists in Rio and I made a documentary. I guaranteed the funding in Finland. They did the production work. Today, I have a job in Finland. The film looks great on my CV. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are doing low-paying odd jobs for income.

How to plan collaboration in a way to avoid this imbalance and the logics of exploitation? How can the career of those with whom we collaborate also feature in our plans?

This leads me to another lesson learned from my experience collaborating with underprivileged activists: the issue of time. Both in my collaboration with favela activists and with Black and Brown activists in Finland, the disparity between “research time” and “activist time” have been problematic.

By time, I refer to the levels of immediacy and the adequate pace for measures to be taken for some outcome to be achieved. In general, the time from research planning to outcomes is significantly slower than the time from tactical planning, action and impact for activists.

This disparity is even bigger when the collaboration happens with people whose actions often mean a matter of livelihood, well-being and security for themselves and their families. It is not an exaggeration, in some cases, to talk about it in terms of life or death.

In my experience researching favela media activism and anti-racism media activism, the slowness of producing materials have constantly conflicted with the need activists have for those materials immediately.

How, then, to develop strategies to reduce the impact of different perceptions and relationships with time in collaborative efforts between researchers and activists?

This question leads me to my last point: the issue of roles and attitudes within collaborative processes. To be specific, I’m referring here to researchers puzzled by whether they are activists or researchers.

For the past four years, I have organized, together with my colleague Camilla Marucco, the “Activist Research Network”. In the conversations we organize, one common anguish shared by early-career and senior researchers alike comes from how confusing collaboration gets when you get yourself not knowing whether you are being an activist or a researcher.

In my case, both the favela and the anti-racism research processes are very close to my biographic and ideological core. I come from a city that resembles a favela. Racism also affects me. So, by studying these topics, I’m also learning about myself.

Consequently, sometimes, I see myself using my position as a researcher to support movements, to make political statements and join actions in ways that have little to do with my research findings. Am I, then, an activist?

At the same time, all the activism seems to lead me away from my research work. I find myself often in a whirlwind of actions and, therefore, with little time to read and write. Am I a researcher?

These are internal conflicts, but they somehow relate to interpersonal conflicts too. Recently, I’ve had conflicts related to the problems I mentioned here in both favela and anti-racism processes. These conflicts have led me to reflect about what my role as a researcher is.

Today, I’ve decided to embrace the slowness of the research work because I recognize it as a long-term contribution throughout space and time to activism across borders.

This gives me some relief. Yet, the issue of power balance, sense of time and the roles we take in the process remain. My point is that it is really difficult to put collaboration into practice from methodological, and ethical points of view.

How, then, can we prevent collaboration from becoming a catchy, but empty, buzzword? How can a critical and self-critical understanding of collaboration contribute to the reconciliation between collectivity of collaboration and the individuality of building academic careers?

These are some questions I would add to the list we had on the Winter School website. Thank you for listening.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.