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Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa



Call for Papers: Colleagues, Assistants or Servants: the Epistemological Status of Fieldwork Assistants

Méthod(e)s: African Review of Social Science Methodology/Revue africaine de méthodologie des sciences sociales

Lyn Schumaker, University of Manchester, UK
Jean-Bernard Ouédraogo, CNRS-EHESS, Paris, France.

Against a backdrop of the marginalization of ethnography, a direct and often anonymous collector of “facts”, the writing of the history of social sciences in the field confers privilege on individuals and schools intervening at the end of the value chain of scientific work. One sees oneself as the solitary researcher, armed with the knowledge of the greats, collecting and deciphering facts from strange, unknown social systems. The “field”, “where the facts grow” (Dachet 1985: 191) has long been a remote, subordinate experience from which only the criterion of truth and authenticity of the determined facts, will be applied. Frazer’s remark, “The field, God forbid,” successfully captures the lack of value attached to the humble work of the direct collection of facts. Few social science historians pay attention to the involvement of local stakeholders in scientific knowledge production. Certainly, observations on the conditions of field work are far from new (Srinis et al, 1979, Studies in Anthropology Methods 1960; Maget 1953). The current reflexive thinking underlines all the epistemological interest in the commitment of the researcher caught up in the complex realities of his “field”, this test which now confers glory on the practitioner, but which unfortunately remains limited to the exploration of individual experiences. Indeed, the recent celebration of field work has almost obscured the central role of assistants and informants in shaping the knowledge that underpins the social identity of the main social science disciplines.

The importance attached to peer circles which form the validation space, even in controversy, tends to minimize or even negate the contribution of assistants and informants in the key phase of collecting in the field of information essential to theoretical formalizations. However, as L. Schumaker (2001) has masterfully shown in the case of the famous Manchester Anthropological School, the social environment of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute, in terms of the local flow of men and ideas, has greatly influenced the construction of anthropological knowledge. But it is not just a question of anthropology. This methodological interrogation should legitimately be extended to sociological inquiry or even beyond, because, on various scales, all social sciences disciplines resorting to the “field” are required to set their action within a historical context populated by various stakeholders. Likewise, geographical specializations are of little relevance, since from sociology, the science of Western societies, to anthropology, the science of non-Western societies, the involvement of subordinate, indigenous collaborators is a common practice. The very principle of studying off an unfamiliar place implies that the foreign researcher can find connivances, facilitators, collaborators or assistants acting as gateways to this strange world, often resistant to be scrutinized by people from elsewhere.

The action of this “collaborator”, this “stranger from within” (Rabinow 1987), when it is effective, serves to reduce – without canceling – essential social differences (class, ethnicity, religion, language, sex), these subtle but resistant alterities that can radically interfere with scientific exploration of other realities. Whether this role is negated, along the “I do not work with informants” model, or assumed on the “lazy ethnology” (Christian Pelras) of “everyone is an informant” model in the field, we would like to draw attention to the contribution, often key but potentially positive or negative, of subordinate collaborators (indigenous or otherwise) in the production of the learned science of societies in this issue of Method(e)s. We could broaden the category of these “second fiddles” of scientific work to all of the junior “investigators ” (including post-field processors) that come across in the process of producing social science knowledge.

Historiography views the role of these men and women encountered on the path of persistent exploration of these “fields”, these foreign societies, as that of a simple assistance, an assistant human tool (often created by the researcher himself), responsible for facilitating or ensuring authenticity, or facilitating the collection of information on societies with which they have more familiarity than the foreign researcher does. Many are praised for their effectiveness in this important intermediary role. In some cases, genuinely strong links have been established between collaborator and researcher. Some field study reports mention the importance of their contributions without putting them on equal footing with the researcher. It is more common to portray these “collaborators” as passive peddlers of gnoseological knowledge, of the indigenous interior, destined for a more complex treatment by the allogeneic scientist who is alone capable of sorting, ordering and placing these fragments of local events into the historical context of the controversies of the discipline in question, to ensure a “rise in generality” in Western scholarly space. The objective of this issue of Method(e)s is to review the contribution of field assistants in the development of established scientific knowledge. We will explore the different aspects of this collaboration, more or less recognized, to see its heuristic functions in knowledge production in the social sciences. The goal is not to simply do justice to subordinate “workers” who have been unfairly overlooked in the history of knowledge production, but to seek to critically establish their epistemological status in order to recognize the forms of their contributions in the construction of theories, concepts and tools of investigation inscribed in the common heritage of contemporary social sciences. By following the course of the knowledge production process in the social sciences, we will then be able to identify the important moments during which heuristic interactions, the sources of scientific input, occur.

In this division of scientific work, the important phase of data collection has long been part of a paradox: it is considered the keystone of scientific production, the ultimate moment for exercising methodological rigor, but confers little scientific consideration on its main participants. However, this moment highlights the contradictions of the researcher’s job in the social sciences. In this “joint work”, the researcher and the informant (often part of different social dynamics) are part of a tension in which a territory of investigation, a unit of observation and principles of selection of significant elements of the indigenous social world are constructed.

The critical feedback on this collaboration leads to the understanding of the premises, even the actual beginning, of a local social science never recognized as such, but which nonetheless remains obvious in the mirror of an exogenous scholarly demand. However, can such a “point of view” be labeled as “collective” or is it still a tentative development of a local huckster’s individual success strategy? What relationship does it maintain with local knowledge production authorities? In approaching the phenomenon from its two main aspects – the anthropologist’s original space and the informant’s society –, the question of the scientific status of the informant paradoxically arises in a similar way: how does his double connivance grant him a true scholarly identity?

We believe it is important to understand the different ways in which these “intercessors” of the studied society establish their ethnographic “corpora”. How do they collect their data? On what basis are they meant for the foreign researcher? In this field of knowledge production, do the foreign researcher and his local collaborator diverge or converge?

The issue of the value of this collaboration arises from the researcher’s standpoint. In addition to the important question of the relationship to the Other raised through this person, the “trade” in which the researcher enters into his research challenges the heuristic credit of the “field items” gathered under such conditions. Questioning the status of the “collaborator” can lead us to study the career paths of individual researchers or collaborators or that of schools or disciplines. We must answer an important question: Are these field research assistants colleagues, assistants, servants or “hidden masters”?

Finally, more generally, it is possible to follow the flow of knowledge from its collection by one or more informants up to their participation in a complex conceptual formulation. Each step takes on its own importance.

In this issue, we welcome work dealing with the various aspects of the phenomenon of indigenous assistance in field research. All of the sections of Méthod(e)s are excellent opportunities to highlight the types of expression of this important phenomenon in the history of social sciences.

The Thematic section hosts analytical articles dealing with this issue of hegemony by following the multiple dimensions that we have just described (70,000 characters, including spaces).

The Field Issues section will allow us to revisit or expound on a personal experience of interaction between a researcher and research assistants in a specific research space (50,000 characters, spaces included).

The Varia section is open to substantive texts offering an original point of view on the methodology and epistemology of the social sciences (40,000 characters, including spaces).

The Guest Papers section will discuss a classic text presenting an original proposal on the methodology and epistemology of the Global South. The central text will be discussed in short texts by colleagues from different geographical, political and intellectual backgrounds (40,000 characters, including spaces).

The Critical Note will feature one or two articles that examine one or more important works on method in relation to the theme of this issue. These critiques should highlight the importance of the issues raised in the work in question (40,000 characters, spaces included).

In the Review section, colleagues are invited to write critical commentaries on recent publications as part of ongoing debates (15,000 characters, including spaces).

Correspondence should be sent to: contact.methodes@gmail.com

Call for Papers: Colleagues, Assistants or Servants: the Epistemological Status of Fieldwork Assistants

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