The Alchemy of Relationships and the Production of Evidence

This post is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca TapscottLisa Denney and Pilar Domingo, Michael WoolcockMorten Jerven, and Alex de Waal.

The piece is a welcome provocation to discussion, even if ultimately I am left with the thought: there is a rather fundamental difference between tomatoes on a supply chain and the pursuit of understanding human experience. I show that here, intentionally choosing to write from a personal perspective, rather than in more academic prose.

Two main responses spring to mind in light of my own (anthropological) work:

1) Knowledge is not an “alienable” commodity.

2) The complexity of human relationships in the research process are not best captured with reference to market forces.

The piece raises an underlying question about the production of “knowledge:” is knowledge a kind of raw material –- is it an “alienable commodity”? The idea that data is a commodity implies that it is something; that it is a thing which exists independently and apart from the intentionality of human relationships. Perhaps some information is similar to a raw material that can be extracted in crude form but the kind of “knowledge” which interests me is born of shared experiences and long-term relationships. Knowledge appears to me less of a raw material to be processed and packed, and more the stuff of human interaction.

My experience with research is much less transactional than envisaged by the “supply chain framework” though I am often concerned with issues the authors insightfully highlight of agency and ethical, methodological and political questions–as they say–at each stage of the supply chain—and which I might say—in each relationship. As I will say more below, relationships provide a basis for a very different kind of knowledge production. Over the years I have lived in northern Uganda (nearly a decade) Some of the people who were initially “only” the “subjects” of research could now more aptly be described as friends.

The kinds of political, ethical and methodological questions that challenge me in my work arise from issues that come from this deep engagement with people—an engagement embedded in massive imbalances of power and wealth that stem from my own positionality. Another (more senior) scholar asked me (tongue-in-cheek) about the “secret” of my research methodology. I gave a reply which was in-kind but still true. The secret ingredient of methodological success: love and mutual vulnerability. Rather cynically (though in jest), this other scholar suggested that perhaps genuine love was not required but the pretense of it — and so, following this logic — that a very good actor who feigns care for their informants would have elicited the same information that I did.

I do not think that is the case, and this is why: knowledge is catalyzed by the alchemy of relationships, even when the initial materials include one part identity politics and one part orthodox methodological training.

The process of sharing changes the meaning ascribed to experiences. The questions I have change through interactions. The answers that seem important change.

The piece also raises the implications of “saturation” and how it shapes the ways in which people respond to researchers. They point to the ways people can instrumentalize the research process for private ends and political ambition and regurgitate correct answers. Calling attention to the agency of the researched is important, even if that agency is used to entrench rather address issues of concern in “fragile” contexts. However, man of the problematic dynamics of “saturation” the authors raise are largely the result of an over reliance on the things people say. In this sense, said pitfalls can, I think, be somewhat overcome by technical (method) and ethical measures. The context of relationships and observance of daily life occurrences limits reliance on crafted “narratives.” As a longtime participant observer I have a lot to work with besides what people tell me (or don’t tell me).

(As an important aside, northern Uganda, where I work, might be considered a “saturated” research environment but not with the “intrepid professional researchers” linked to policy-makers envisaged in this piece — but rather with students most of whom are working on undergraduate and masters degrees).

Further, most people I interact with in the course of research are less obsessed with “what development agencies might want to hear” than the “supply chain” framework seems to imagine. They may indeed consider such things in brief encounters with international researchers (particularly those who ask questions pertaining to their material needs), but over the course of longterm relationships such a sustained concern with international policy is unlikely to be at the forefront of people’s minds. Moreover, most have seen international researchers come and go with little if any tangible impacts seen on the ground. What seems much more likely (if there is a cost and benefit analysis) is that they shape a narrative to create the relationship they want with the researcher sitting opposite them.

When I say ethical and methodological approaches may minimize pitfalls this is not to suggest they will help to distill the “organic” product. As discussed above and, like the authors, I see the pursuit of imagined “unadulterated” life stories to be misled. It is a fantasy that a “pure” product exists if we spend enough time to get it. I value long-term engagement—but in the course of such engagement the researcher enters and alters the story. Authenticity of a life story is always necessarily changed by the researcher who becomes part of that story. Knowledge, in this case cannot be an “alienable commodity.”

The authors suggest: “authenticity is always already shaped by the market conditions that it creates.” The first part of this sentence had me nodding, but is “market conditions” the best way to frame the multi-dimensional relationships involved in knowledge production? Don’t these relationships consist of much more than transactional frameworks imply?

The authors ask: Does this framework unfairly critique the possibility of genuine human interaction?” I certainly hope so.

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