ELAR Occasional Seminar Series

When: 3-5PM, Friday 21 March, 2014
Where: Room T102, 22 Russell Square, London ... location information

Is Collaboration Really a ''Method''? Is ''Data'' Really the Goal?

Lise Dobrin

University of Virginia

The current generation of documentary linguists has expressed a seemingly inexhaustible interest in collaborative research methods, taking the call for a more responsible linguistics to a level hardly imaginable twenty years ago. Yet collaboration presents a number of practical and potentially dissuasive challenges. It involves linguists in projects that exceed their traditional areas of expertise and that do not always lead to the kinds of outputs that are valued by the profession. Collaborative relationships are also notoriously unstable, making them unreliable reference points in building a career. Collaborative fieldwork and archiving requires large investments of time and effort that documentary linguists struggle to justify to a wider disciplinary audience that prioritizes theoretical advances over descriptive work or public engagement. So although it is sometimes proposed that collaboration will lead to more or better scholarship by e.g., ensuring the multifunctionality of the documentary record, minimizing interpretive bias, or transferring skills to speakers (e.g., Dwyer 2010, Furbee 2010), we cannot help but observe that these are all subsidiary to the discipline’s main goals.

This emphasis on collaborative research, despite its uneasy fit with traditional academic values, reflects linguists’ growing adherence to an alternative disciplinary framework that construes the maintenance of language diversity as a means to moral ends and that connects the actions of both linguists and speakers to conditions in the world at large. From this perspective, the movement for collaboration is less about refining a “method” in the service of traditional scientific goals than an effort to promote and participate in moral relationships across social difference.

Viewing collaboration as but one possibility along a broad spectrum of moral relationships sheds light on some of the apparent disagreements about appropriate interactions with communities in the language documentation literature. At what point should collaboration commence (Leonard and Haynes 2010)? Is it more suitable in some cultures than others (Good 2011)? Is collaboration really necessary at all (Crippen and Robinson 2013)? Such questions suggest that the real challenge is not figuring out how to collaborate, but figuring out how to develop culturally contextual understandings of what moral relationships entail, especially when our interlocutors’ perspectives are not attuned to issues of linguistic diversity or otherwise aligned with our own. We propose that the anthropological model of participant observation offers documentary linguists a more productive path to meeting this challenge than asking who controls the research or negotiating relative benefits. By explicitly recognizing that social relations are both essential for producing knowledge and personally enriching experiences with a momentum of their own, this model lets us theorize human involvement as a legitimate—indeed constitutive—element of linguistic research.

Lise M. Dobrin is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, where she also directs the Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics. Her work focuses on the language, culture, and historical circumstances of the Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea. She is the author of numerous studies in the areas of language documentation, the history of anthropology, and the changing status of linguistic and anthropological research, especially vis-à-vis processes of language shift and language activism More information about Lise and her work is available from her university homepage.

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