Facing Imbalances in Global Knowledge Co-creation

Global South-North asymmetries, or imbalances, in resources and access to mobility are often pervasive in international research, including research on peace, conflict, migration and development.

Research projects can be experienced as extractive in many contexts around the world.

Project photo from fieldwork in Hanoi. Photo: Karen Liao / MigrationRhythms project / PRIO

This means that the research process feels like it is taking something away from those involved, rather than benefiting them. This can even be the case when collaboration across unequal relationships has been carefully reflected upon by research teams.

PRIO’s MigrationRhythms project reflected on these issues as it collected data in the four Asian cities of Hanoi, Karachi, Manila and Mumbai. Project members worked with senior academics, postdoctoral researchers, as well as with undergraduate and postgraduate students, in different roles and capacities.

It was a goal to be conscious of the challenges that global imbalances in research entail throughout this process, and to navigate them while trying to avoid extractive experiences. The approach aimed to create opportunities for everyone involved to participate in an international study, to gain experience doing research, and through this, to contribute to creating knowledge together.

Below, we share collective reflections from an online cross-city discussion that aimed to create space, especially for junior scholars, to share their experiences of being involved in a multi-city study, and to consider knowledge co-creation amid existing global asymmetries.

Co-creation, language and local knowledge

It was a learning experience for everyone to conduct interviews and field observations across the four cities. We worked in different constellations and modes during fieldwork, with the MigrationRhythms core researchers guiding locally-based researchers and students as they took on the roles of interviewer, transcribers and translators. The roles of local research colleagues were invaluable – from interviewing to translating, to sharing and explaining socio-cultural, political and historical contexts.

The different perspectives of people who conducted interviews, translated and transcribed on their participation in the research process, as bearers of local knowledge and language was key. It was also invaluable to have the opportunity to learn, improve skills, and be exposed to qualitative methods and fieldwork.

It was both a learning experience and a challenge to navigate multiple languages as part of co-creating data for a cross-city project, where English was the shared medium of communication. The experience of transcription and subsequent translation stressed the salience of carefully choosing the best suited English words when translating, but also including annotations to explain words that did not have suitable English translations.

Translating the granularity of specific local experiences into ‘global English’ was challenging because it can be hard to ensure that the meaning is represented properly. For example, in interviews from Mumbai the socio-cultural and caste-related dimensions of the city were discussed as something requiring careful thought when translating the interview transcripts into English.

At the same time, the value of cross-city learning and also comparison of experiences at some level means that a common language is necessary, because it enables communication and knowledge co-creation to happen.

Positionality and epistemic privilege

Locally-based interviewers shared their fieldwork experience and reflected on positionality along the lines of age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic location. How positionality matters for conducting fieldwork was also discussed: including, how one “hears” when listening to interviewees speaking, and to recordings when transcribing, and later translating into English.

‘Epistemic privilege’ was also discussed, which is the idea that certain individuals have greater authority or credibility based on education, social status or other expertise. Reflections were shared about the salience of local familiarity and ability to speak in multiple languages, including English, and how this shaped abilities and roles in knowledge co-creation.

For example, epistemic privilege contributed to insights that might otherwise be missed, as was reflected by interviewers who took part in data collection in Mumbai and Karachi, discussing the multiplicity of histories linked to the events of 1947 and Partition. This was associated with huge upheaval and societal rupture, including substantial population movements, as the two independent, post-colonial states of India and Pakistan were established. In another example, the local researcher’s contextual insights in Hanoi added critical frames of reference in relation to how institutions and traits of the city had changed over time.

While basic contextual knowledge about a context is key for all researchers to be familiar with, there are many nuances which may be harder to grasp without deeper contextual understanding and attunement. The team also reflected on how positionalities are more than either insider or outsider, as various ‘third positions’ also occur and can contribute valuably to co-creating knowledge.

Because learning is a continuous process, reflections were shared on how everyone had gained new perspectives, even on familiar places and dynamics, with specific references made to learning about the extent to which both internal and international migration have led to the improved living conditions of families who are now part of the middle classes in cities like Manila and Mumbai.

Imperfect solutions

Reflections from the cross-city exchange revealed the value-added of knowledge co-creation across global asymmetries, while recognizing the inherent pitfalls. Placing empirical attention in contexts beyond ‘the usual suspects’ might be seen as an attempt to disrupt dominant patterns of research which are too focused on Global North realities. By working with local researchers in specific cities in countries in the Global South, there are also ways to try to create opportunities for mutually rewarding collaboration, while contributing to co-creating knowledge, in the midst of prevailing asymmetries.

However, challenges and dilemmas arise across different approaches to working together. The approaches that can be implemented in a single research project are usually imperfect solutions, and can potentially retain extractive tendencies, despite the best intentions. The risk remains that colleagues based in empirical contexts in countries in the Global South primarily collect data, whereas mutual learning and honest, critical debate remain secondary.

Addressing structural imbalances in knowledge production globally, is a responsibility for researchers, institutions and funders, and requires urgent effort. Simultaneously, there are also ways to foster opportunities, albeit imperfect, at the smaller and everyday scale of research practice. Such opportunities for learning, sharing and experience-gaining encourage a sense of co-creating knowledge in some ways, which everyone involved from their vantage points can benefit from.

The approach in the MigrationRhythms project was by no means perfect in vision, nor in practice. Throughout our fieldwork, we also fell short and scope always exists for future improvement. The realities of global structural imbalances and divides are pervasive in research. They continue to be a reality which all international research must face, engage with, and find ways to challenge and improve on.

We hope these reflections contribute to openness in sharing experiences where research projects in small ways try to face global asymmetries in research, with an approach that seeks to be consciously ethical, while acknowledging flaws and shortcomings. We have tried to do this not just by recognizing that these issues exist. But also by being reflexive about our collaborative practice across the differing roles and locations of colleagues, respecting and recognizing everyone involved, and mutually trying to find ways to support one another, and continue processes of mutual learning.

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