By Robert Pijpers and Sabine Luning
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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): http://gold-matters.org/?p=803
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.