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Building Collaborative Habits, Establishing Sustaining Relations: What is the Role of a Scholarly Society Today?

For decades, the in-person academic conference has been a core aspect of the scholarly society’s mandate and programming. But the disruption COVID-19 has brought to in-person travel has amplified the need to grapple with critiques that were already growing about the format of the annual academic conference. Anand Pandian (2018), for one, has noted the incredible carbon footprints produced by such gatherings of scholars and academics, as well as questions of equitable access considering the cost and barriers to travel which often restrict already precarious and marginalized scholars from attending. In addition to rethinking fieldwork in COVID-19 times (see the Platypus Blog’s series on fieldwork amid the pandemic and the Patchwork Ethnography manifesto as examples), we call for deep reflection on the role of a scholarly society, as sociotechnical infrastructure, in supporting diverse collaborative relations. COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities that were already at play in who can attend the in-person annual academic conference. In paying attention to the scholarly society as sociotechnical infrastructure, we believe there is an opportunity to contribute to thinking about what a radical break with the ways that academic social networks have thus far been established might look like, as well as contribute to new anthropological theory-making.

From our position as two of the student representatives for the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), we reflect on the importance of scholarly societies in creating opportunities for establishing and sustaining collaborative habits and relationships that go beyond an annual in-person meeting. The genre of the conference has functioned as key infrastructure for scholarly collaborative relations to date, but we argue that diversifying and supporting additional kinds of sociotechnical infrastructures is now needed. Due to ethnocentric, gendered, and racialized disciplinary histories and newer neoliberal contexts which privilege individual authorship (and only count certain subjects as authors in the first place), the work of building and sustaining new sociotechnical scholarly infrastructures is often not recognized as legitimate academic labor and theory-making in typical academic review and evaluation processes. Here is a key intervention that academic societies can lead: better establish processes for credentialing, acknowledging, and valuing this kind of work. We suggest the scholarly society should decenter its focus on an annual conference and instead imagine its role as developing and strengthening scholarly-run, collective open access infrastructures sustained by and sustaining a humble collaborative ethos.

Infrastructuring Scholarly Collaborations

Collaboration has been a central component of anthropology since its disciplinary beginnings, including with interlocutors and spouses who were rarely acknowledged as collaborators. More recently, over the last decade, anthropologists of science and technology have been developing exciting and inspiring modes of scholarly-run collaboratives. For example, the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (Choy et al. 2009) have shown how experiments in collaboration can open new investigative possibilities for cultural anthropologists. An open-source content management platform, Mukurtu (https://mukurtu.org/) developed and maintained by a team at Washington State University, seeks to advance thinking and development of culturally relevant and ethical digital archives. The Platform for Collaborative Ethnography (PECE) (https://pece-project.github.io/drupal-pece/) is another example of an open source software project that has become a site for exposing, testing, and extending ethnographic methods and the pedagogical and political promise of ethnographic modes of inquiry (Khandekar et al. 2021). An instance of PECE called STS Infrastructures was established in 2018 to create new archival, analytical, and publication possibilities that connect STS researchers in novel ways.

When we started to work together as 6S (the Student Section of 4S) representatives, we were interested in further developing the society’s student section to provide the necessary scaffolding for deeper engagement and more collaborative modes of thinking and working together as science studies students. We noted how students were already collaborating, from offering feedback on someone else’s draft paper, running a brainstorming session to help with the conceptualization of someone’s project, participating in a reading group, or even co-authoring work. These are often common activities for graduate students already [1] but we argue that society bodies like 4S can help scaffold an intentional awareness of and approach to these practices as an ongoing process of building habits of collaboration. Collaborative infrastructures constitute not only sociotechnical platforms for communicating and thinking together, but also the relations themselves. It is the habit of these collaborative relations that continuously (re)produce such infrastructures.

In encouraging greater reflection on the habits and infrastructures of collaboration, perhaps we can also begin to restructure the way we pursue the production of ethnographic knowledge [2]. The pandemic has prompted many to revisit ongoing discussions within anthropology about the nature of fieldwork and ethnographic theorizing. We suggest that sociotechnical collaborative infrastructures like academic societies and conferences are also precisely central to this conversation. Taking cues from groups like the Matsutake Worlds Research Group, Mukurtu and PECE, and drawing on STS and anthropology of science’s own understandings of sociotechnical infrastructures, we seek to focus attention to how sections like 6S and its activities—annual conference and beyond—could not only enable but constitute new forms of theory-making.

Finding Time for Habits of Collaboration

For us, building collaborative relations has been the most sustaining part of academia. However, such collaborative practices often don’t “count” within the evaluative processes for new jobs or promotions. As such, it’s often too easy to feel like we don’t have the time for them. “I would love to work with you all but really need to just focus on finishing my dissertation in time,” an international student in one of our cohorts explained. He was on a particularly tight timeline to finish because his guaranteed funding would run out after a fixed number of quarters. But if the value of education is to build the intellectual sinew and relations to sustain generative, future scholarship, why are we (being) rushed through “individually” to finish?

We know the answer to that question relates to the increasingly neoliberal character of the university, but we call for scholarly societies and other such groups to help establish and legitimize spaces and mechanisms for continuing to build and practice relations otherwise. Practices of ethnographic scholarly collaboration (including peer-to-peer, with interlocutors, other disciplines, etc.) shouldn’t be extra work, but rather constitutive of our work. Academia-as-usual is not sustaining for many people, and unequally so. The burden to reclaim academia or the university from neoliberal logics[3] should not be—can’t be—on students (alone). Across academic hierarchies of position and power, we must radically rethink single-authorship[4], openly discuss the precarity of unpaid editing and review of colleagues’ work, treat colleagues and collaborators in the field as co-creators rather than informants, where appropriate, and call out the social inequalities that this entire system perpetuates[5]. These stakes make addressing this urgent, and the pandemic moment is an opportunity to begin shifting these existing academic norms and structures.

Habits of Collaboration through 6S

Image of a laptop screen displaying a page from the 6S 2020 workshop online collaboration platform. https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/6s-2020-who-participating

The PECE platform we used to infrastructure the 6S 2020 workshop. Photo by the authors.

The Student Section for the Society for Social Studies of Science (6S) emerged around twenty years ago to specifically advocate for the student members of the society, which continue to comprise a large proportion of the society membership (around 50% of attendees at recent meetings have been students and postdocs). Katie joined as a representative in 2017 and Angela in 2018; we hadn’t known each other before 6S. Creating spaces for collaboration among student members oriented the specific design of the 2020 annual 6S workshop, carried out with our fellow representative at the time Aadita Chaudhury (see the collaborative online platform, PECE, we used for the workshop). This also motivated a recent call, carried out with our current fellow representative Misria Shaik Ali, to organize various 6S Working Groups around themes like peer writing review, research design and methods, transnational STS, and decolonizing STS. These measures have come with their own challenges, of course, and there is much room for improvements and other possibilities. However, we hope they serve as one way to rethink the role of academic societies in infrastructuring collaborative relations beyond merely an annual societal meeting.

We end by inviting student (and student-at-heart) readers of the Platypus blog to join 6S if they haven’t already! Join our slack channel here, where we communicate with members. New 6S Working Groups are in the process of being set up by various 6S members, and anyone is welcome to join in the organizing or participation of them.


Notes

[1] As the editorial review raised, collaboration dynamics shift and change throughout one’s graduate studies program. It may be easier for students in the early years of their program to collaborate, due to the ways that students are increasingly professionalized to be territorial about their work, and possible jobs. This appears to be furthered for postdocs and junior scholars who are protective of their data and insights that are not yet published. We call for greater attention to be paid to how we might be able to break out of limiting, divisive models and work against ideas that students have to be territorial.

[2] Collaboration with non-academic practitioners is also relevant here, about which there is extensive anthropological and STS work (see, for example, Estalella and Criado 2018; Marcus 2005; Yates‐Doerr 2019).

[3] Whether we even want to, or can, reclaim or redeem these per se is an open question (McKittrick 2021).

[4] See for example this recent piece (Okune et al. 2021), written using first‐person singular pronouns, but listing all participants as co‐authors. This is to signal and acknowledge the key contribution of the discussion participants, without whom the article could have been written. But Angela did not use plural pronouns as she did not want to appear to be speaking on their behalf (when collaborators did not have the availability to write the piece together). Angela talks about the awkwardness and limited options to substantively acknowledge the labour of the discussion participants.

[5] We would like to acknowledge and thank Serena Stein for this contribution to the piece and her deep and thoughtful engagement during the editorial review process.

References

Choy, Timothy K., Leiba Faier, Michael J. Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and Anna Tsing. 2009. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds.” American Ethnologist 36(2): 380-403.

Estalella, Adolfo, and Tomas Sanchez Criado, eds. 2018. Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices. Easa Series. New York: Berghahn Books.

Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology Fieldsights, June 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography.

Khandekar, Aalok, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, Lindsay Poirier, Alli Morgan, Ali Kenner, Kim Fortun, and Mike Fortun. Forthcoming (2021). “Moving Ethnography: Infrastructuring Doubletakes and Switchbacks in Experimental Collaborative Methods.” Science & Technology Studies.

Marcus, George E., and Fernando Mascarenhas. 2005. Ocasião: The Marquis and the Anthropologist, a Collaboration. Alterations Book Series. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Okune, Angela, Sulaiman Adebowale, Eve Gray, Angela Mumo, and Ruth Oniang’o. 2021. “Conceptualizing, Financing and Infrastructuring: Perspectives on Open Access in and from Africa.” Development and Change 52(2): 359-372. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12632.

Pandian, Anand. 2018. “Reflections on #displace18.” Cultural Anthropology Announcements, November 9. https://culanth.org/about/about-the-society/announcements/reflections-on-displace18.

Yates‐Doerr, Emily. 2019. “Whose Global, Which Health? Unsettling Collaboration with Careful Equivocation.” American Anthropologist 121(2): 297–310. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13259.

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