How can co-labouring improve transdisciplinary research?

By Robert Pijpers and Sabine Luning

1. Robert Pijpers (biography)
2. Sabine Luning (biography)

What do we mean by co-labouring? What practices does it involve? How can it enhance interactions among researchers and key stakeholders in transdisciplinary research?

Defining co-labouring

Choosing the notion of ‘co-labouring’ in our transdisciplinary project stems from an awareness that creating alternative perspectives, eg., on sustainable futures for mining, is a complex endeavor. Ideas of researchers wanting to give voice to unheard groups at the margin are too often based on simple models of translation. These assumptions underestimate what gets lost in translation, or the gaps in understandings between different groups of stakeholders.

Inspired by the work of Marisol de la Cadena (2015), we consider co-labouring to be the hard work needed when partners engage in conversations, defined as processes of (re)interpretations. Such conversations take place between researchers and stakeholders who are ‘partially connected’, partially understand each other and the outcomes of the conversations are not self-evident.

Our experience of co-labouring

Our findings are based on a project examining artisanal and small-scale gold mining, especially a series of activities held in January 2020 in Kejetia, Northern Ghana. The activities involved transdisciplinary collaborations around visualisations of gold mining spaces, gold miners’ lives and projections of sustainable futures. It involved residents of the Kejetia mining community in Northern Ghana (including male gold miners, women involved in processing ore and schoolchildren), researchers from Europe and West Africa, a cartographer, West African artists and gold miners from another research site. The activities built on a long-term collaboration by Sabine Luning and her students from Leiden University with miners in Kejetia and photography projects with miners and others in the area by artist Nii Obodai.

Co-labouring occurred during a number of activities focused on visualisation, including:

  • mapping of Kejetia’s mining space via ‘walk-alongs’ using mobile mapping devices to locate specific places and tag photos onto a map
  • setting up a photographic pop-up exhibition to portray local and global artisanal and small-scale gold mining practices
  • a photography workshop with schoolchildren, which involved them photographing their everyday lives in the gold mining community
  • creation of an installation artwork in a collaboration between Christophe Sawadogo, an internationally renowned painter from Burkina Faso and women of Kejetia, which became a site for commemorating the gold miners who had died in two recent tragic underground mining accidents.

The value of co-labouring

We found the following to be particularly valuable.

  1. Co-labouring foregrounds multiple perspectives, since different people look with different eyes based on different expertise, sensitivities and interests. This means that we can understand the mining landscapes in which sustainability challenges emerge in more diverse and holistic ways.
  2. At the same time, the team members responsible for organizing the activities had moments of discomfort: visiting team members were ‘in the lead’ in several of the events, and perhaps they were learning most. This awkwardness brought home that co-labouring does not only bridge inequalities, it can also make them more visible than mainstream research projects would do.
  3. The most valuable interactions occurred between collaborating miners posing questions to each other, while simultaneously explaining to researchers why these questions are relevant, eg., during the walk-alongs.
  4. The focus on visuals and visualizations was valuable for sustainability conversations. Mining actors, artists and researchers alike were all eager to make, share, watch and discuss the different visual outputs such as pictures, films, maps and art works.
  5. Engaging in projects together contributed to building relationships of trust, and transforming research relations into friendships. It did not eliminate inequalities inherent in research practices – on the contrary, as described above, it may even highlight them better – but common learning, exchange of experiences and expertise, and enjoyment serve to build bridges in interactions between the participants, which made the events most valuable in themselves and a source for envisioning vistas for sustained co-labouring for the future.
  6. Co-labouring provided the key to more nuanced discussions. In our particular case, engaging in discussions from multiple angles, collaborating around joint tasks and maintaining good relations are key in developing fair understandings about artisanal and small-scale mining and its dimensions of sustainability, including social, economic and environmental impacts and possible solutions, rather than one-dimensional causal reasoning which confronts artisanal and small-scale miners with economic hardship and legal and social criminalization.


Processes of stakeholder engagement are multilayered and open-ended. Conversations are based on partial understandings between partners who will grow closer but who cannot completely resolve all inequalities which characterize their relationships.

Researchers should redefine their tasks accordingly. We cannot transmit single messages from marginalized miners to other audiences, such as policy makers. Rather, we have to pay attention to the context in which stakeholder conversations take shape and seek new and more creative forms of communicative co-labour which will yield more diverse – often partial and conflicting – visions for sustainable futures.

We would love to invite readers to engage with us in such sustainability conversations, and would like to know: Do you find co-labouring to be a useful term? What’s your experience been of co-labouring? Do you have examples to share that would embellish ours?

This blog post is based on material in:
Pijpers, R. J. and Luning, S. (2020). Co-labouring for Sustainability: the value of transdisciplinary collaborations between mining actors, artists and researchers, Gold Matters: Exploring Transitions to Sustainability in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining. (Online and which also contains examples of the art works and other visualisations discussed):

De la Cadena, M. (2015). Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Duke University Press: Durham, North Carolina, United States of America.

Biography: Robert Pijpers PhD is a postdoctoral researcher based at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Hamburg in Germany. In his research on resource extraction in West Africa, he collaborates with scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, civil society groups and artists, as well as miners themselves.

Biography: Sabine Luning PhD is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She collaborates with policy makers working for governments and non-governmental organisations, and is interested to see how artistic co-labouring allows for new ways of stakeholder engagement.

6 thoughts on “How can co-labouring improve transdisciplinary research?”

  1. Hi Sabine and Robert. Thanks very much for this blog piece. I find the term “co-labouring” a useful work to express the necessary degree of effort required to bridge the myriad gaps and differences involved in transdisciplinary research collaborations. I was struck in particular by the complex picture you conjured up regarding the discomfort of being from Europe in a post-colonial context, finding oneself in a leading research role while perhaps benefiting more than others in terms of learning. You’ve expressed this inequality in very honest terms and rightly suggest that there is real advantage in exposing the inequality rather than masking it, so that it is available for exploration and conversation in the research collaboration. Now there is some gold to mine!

  2. Dear Steven,

    Great, thanks for your comments!

    Indeed, the choice for the term ‘co-labouring’ indicates that we think you have to make efforts to understand other actors who are implicated in the (research) project. Mutual understanding is not self-evident and does require work; first of all, critical reflection on the processes of communication and exchange of experiences and ideas. Secondly, we do try to work together in creating new modes of thinking an seeing issues of sustainability. In our view terms such as participatory methods and research collaboration do not sufficiently engage critically with inequalities within research contexts. They take specific modes of interaction which characterize development projects too much for granted. If you have the ambition to ‘work together’, you have to face how interactions are marked by gaps, both on the level of communicative practices as well as in positional inequalities within the network of co-labouring partners. In that respect it is very important to assess the specific characteristics of these working relations, which can vary widely from context to context and project to project (see also Wanna 2008, p.3:

    With best regards,
    Sabine and Robert

  3. Your description of co-laboring brings to mind my experiences communicating with people of different cultures and languages. When we humans are at our best, we apply effort to our communication. Each takes time and focus, striving to understand the other. In contrast to those who simply accept whatever pops into their minds (“_I_ don’t understand what he is saying, so _he_ must be crazy” or “”they are doing everything wrong because we do it differently”). Narrow thinking leads to stagnation and decay. While a spirit of oppennes and questioning leads to creativity, synthesis, and growth. When we work to understand one another (in addition to our “normal” work) we gain new insights – we grow.

    That said, I’m not sure co-laboring is the best term possible. It brings to mind “working together” which does not seem to capture the interdisciplinary activities involved.

    • Excellent – yes – it requires laboring on multiple dimensions. No wonder so many people find it difficult. And, your work to improve the process is certain to be beneficial. I also like the article – and look forward to reading it in greater depth. A quick skim shows something which I consider to be very important – a “scale” of collaboration. Using this kind of scale helps individuals, organizations, and communities “self check” – and call for help when needed to improve co-working.


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