Equality in North-South Research Collaboration

Research collaboration across Global South-North divides is an articulated aim in many academic institutions. In this blog we point to the value added, as well as some of the challenges of such collaboration, based on our experiences from collaborative research on migration and transnationalism in Pakistan and Norway.

Fieldwork in Pakistan. Photo: Marta B. Erdal, PRIO

We are writing this blog post as our co-authored article appears on ‘early view’ ahead of publication in the journal Population, Space and Place. Our article is the result of longstanding collaboration between us, as young researchers.

In this blog post we reflect on our experience of research collaboration, and the challenges of striving for an equal research partnership. Research collaboration across geographic borders is important for quality in knowledge production, and a key condition for realizing ambitions of co-production of knowledge.

But the co-production of knowledge in practice is associated with a number of challenges and obstacles.

We reflect on some of these challenges and obstacles, which we have struggled with, worked our way through, or failed to overcome, since we started our collaborative work six years ago. Our overall conclusion, however, is that research collaboration across geographic distances, crossing Global North-South divides, is definitely worth the effort, we will therefore also shed light on some ways in which the outcomes of our research on the transnational social field spanning Pakistan and Norway, have been contingent on this endeavor really being a co-production of knowledge.

In the context of research collaboration across Global North/South divides, our experience is that there are challenges to do with unequal access to – and power over – resources. Even when funding is specifically allocated to partners and to individuals, including junior scholars, the power dynamics of where the funding is coming from are omniscient. The people, or institution, in charge of the money, hold the power. How then to facilitate research partnerships which are ‘equal’ in any real sense?

In our experience with externally funded research, where research questions were defined before our collaboration started, we still found it valuable to reflect together on interview guides and methodological tools, and to develop these further together. There were always details that mattered, for instance with regard to the interpretation of particular words or concepts in English (or Norwegian) and in Urdu or Punjabi. With concepts such as education – or concepts related to money and giving, or gratitude and obligation, our discussions went far beyond the mere ‘translation’ of a tool for data collection. The fact that we could combine understandings from very different perspectives, led to an increased questioning of the ordinary and obvious, which in turn became an analytical strength in our work.

Recruitment strategies and access to research participants, and ways of thinking about these, were another part of the research process, where our different perspectives, past experiences, as well as networks, made a difference. Most significantly in terms of being seen as coming from Norway – or from Pakistan – and thus belonging mainly to the social worlds associated with one, or with the other, made a difference. It made a difference not only to access, but certainly also to how experiences and practices were, or were not, framed by research participants, such as their perspectives on life and society in Pakistan. In conversation with a young female Pakistani PhD student in Pakistan, such as Asma or Anum, responses were different, in assessing the opportunities for young women, than in discussion with Marta. Among other, in several instances, local opportunities vs. international migration as future options were differently framed, leaving us with a clear sense that who was conducting the interview had an impact on interviewees framing of their own reflections. Previously, Marta has also worked with Norwegian-Pakistanis in Pakistan, resulting in another layer of dynamics, drawing on individual’s positions as overseas Pakistanis, which again affects interviewees starting point, for instance for evaluation of migration as a future strategy for themselves.

Exchanging experiences during fieldwork was a crucial aspect of our mutual learning process, where we were reminded of the need to be aware of and be critically reflective of our positionalities. Our fieldwork was cross-cultural in multiple ways: 1) when Anum, Qamar or Asma, as non-migrant, local, Pakistanis interviewed returning or visiting Norwegian-Pakistanis; 2) or their encounters with locals in regions of large-out migration in Pakistan, as Pakistanis originating from areas where out-migration was less common; 3) when Marta as a white European interviewed Norwegian-Pakistanis; 4) or locals in Pakistan; 5) or indeed in Norway. Our reflections and exchanges about these encounters – how we understand them and interpret them – has been an integral part of our co-production of knowledge. This has not been a friction-free process, neither in practical, nor in conceptual terms. Our vantage points are different – and through the realization in our research together of how these play out – we have become more aware of their implications, both with regard to critical reflexivity to positionalities, and for the knowledge production resulting from the research process.

How did our multiple positionalities affect the substance of our research? We found that which statements and reflections from interviewees that each one of us would question, problematize, or not, differed, both based on gender, family situation, past experience, but certainly also with regard to being Pakistani and living in Pakistan – or not. This had direct consequences for the types of analyses and conclusions that resulted from the research. So when Qamar reflected on how he was frustrated with the fact that some of his interviewees, return migrants from Norway, who had been living in Pakistan for most of their youth, did not consider Pakistan a country to stay in, this was an important local perspective, foregrounding non-migrant experiences and views, within a research field often dominated by emphasis on migration.

Local researchers’ perspectives obviously also differ, not least with regard to gendered access to research participants and gendered experiences of life, as Asma, Anum on the one hand, and Qamar, on the other hand, through combined efforts were able to draw out. The roles of religion, and views of culture and tradition, and of modernity and societal development, where all areas where different vantage points, both within a Pakistani context, and from further afield, were mutually necessary correctives to taken-for-grantedness or to over-emphasizing minor curiosities.

While face-to-face interaction is crucial, particularly in gaining trust and establishing a mutually open and respecting relationship from the start, we have found that once we had established such a basis, it has been possible to sustain collaboration over time. This notwithstanding the fact that each and one of us, would have preferred to continue our discussions in the same room over tea, or in the car, going to meet with further research participants, as we have done before. Exchange and communication, together with an honest mutual respect for each other’s perspectives, are fundamental to the co-production of knowledge in our experience. Yet even the technical dimensions of communication are not always straightforward in a Global South-North collaborative context. With regard to travel, you have to be able to pay, and more significantly, to get a visa to be able to go. This requires time, financial resources, and with regard to obtaining visas to come to Europe, an element of uncertainty. Furthermore, in our case, either with young families in Pakistan or in Norway, or pursuing PhDs, the opportunities we as individuals had or did not have to leave for shorter or longer periods of time, and whether this matched with the time-frame within the larger project we worked on, varied.

At the more mundane, yet overwhelmingly important end of the spectrum, the protracted electricity crisis in Pakistan has caused struggles to manage to keep in touch in a regular way. For instance with planned Skype meetings set for a particular time, when the power is cut, as a result of the recurring ‘loud-shedding’ in Pakistan. Using tools necessitating both electricity and a good Internet connection, such as Skype, have thus not always been possible, and so we have opted to combine conversations on Skype with chat functions, supplemented by chat functions on other platforms, including Facebook and LinkedIn, depending on what was working better at any given point in time, and whether mobiles or lap-tops where charged. Email, shared Dropbox folders, as well as mobile phone calls, have also provided important avenues for exchange, albeit with the challenge of delays, due to electricity shortages in Pakistan, and their implications, in particular for young researchers affiliated with a public university in Pakistan.

Starting out as junior researchers working together, under the supervision of more experienced academics at our institutions, throughout our collaboration so far, the career development of each and one of us has obviously also played a role. One dimension of this relates to the omniscient awareness of where the money is coming from – in this case – with Marta as the gate keeper, creating particular dynamics in our collaboration, and posing challenges to practicing equality. Beyond the budgetary frameworks, however, it was possible to work towards equality with regard to the research process, among other through conscious strategies of building a mutual and equal platform. This entailed both long-term strategic choices of really working together, but also banal nitty-gritty details, such as how we addressed one another, in ways that underline the shared ideal of working together as equals.

Criteria and processes of academic career development were a further dimension, intersecting with our collaborative research. This involves institutional and individual, specifically national as well as international, requirements or expectations. As young researchers working together, learning together, we set out with the ambition that our joint work would result in a co-authored publication, one day. However, within the framework of our first research project, that turned out to be unfeasible, for a number of reasons. Because we then had the fortune to be able to continue working together in a second project, extending our collaboration – so far – for six years, we have now been able to work our way to writing together. This has been fun – but it has also been a demanding exercise, which could well have been abandoned at several junctures, much as other co-authored writing projects. Reflecting on why we made the effort to make this happen, beyond the desire to share our findings from fascinating fieldwork and stimulating intellectual exchanges, and beyond the satisfaction of having an article published in a well-established and relevant peer-reviewed journal, we find that the reasons lie in our mutual trust and openness, in the fact that through our exchanges, we know that we have learned from one another, and that our findings thus are co-produced. In order to stay true to that, a co-authored article, reflecting the nature of our work as co-produced, was a necessary outcome. Our experience thus speaks to ongoing discussions in academia about working with research assistants, particularly but not exclusively across Global South-North divides, and dynamics of knowledge creation and power.

Equal research partnerships could ideally be characterized by mutual learning and exchanges of perspectives, with an inherent respect for differing worldviews and ontological vantage points. In our view, a premise for co-production of knowledge is drawing on differences as strengths: building on the perspectives and views that each one of us has, as a consequence of who we are, including where we are physically based and institutionally affiliated. In order to overcome the additional barriers which geographic distance and unequal access to resources pose, particular attention and a will to invest in trust and openness, and in interpersonal relationships, is required. Does this lead to really ‘equal’ research collaboration? In our experience, there have been good episodes of real equality – particular conversations and interactions, although this has certainly not been the only form of encounters we have had. However, the publication of our article is a result of some of the best of these interactions, where we have allowed ourselves to really learn from one another, and to build knowledge on our collective, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives and analyses.

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